Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Haunting, Potently Relevant New Protest Music From the Imani Winds

In French, “bruit” means “noise.” In English, it’s the medical term for a heart murmur caused by a vascular blockage, and pronounced as “brute.” The Imani Winds‘ new album Bruits – streaming at Bandcamp – references both meanings, in terms of access to justice for people of color as well as stirring up a mighty noise about it. New classical music doesn’t get any more relevant than this in 2021.

The group – flutist Brandon Patrick George, oboe player Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mark Dover, horn player Jeff Scott and bassoonist Monica Ellis – open with the title track, a five-part Vijay Iyer suite inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin. Cory Smythe circles ominously on microtonal electric piano as individual wind voices pulse and swirl, darkly tropical Miami bustle giving way to still nocturnal foreshadowing. The second movement has a recitation of the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law – under which Martin’s murderer was acquitted – set to terse, grim piano syncopation.

Low, lingering suspense contrasts with uneasily wafting tones in the third movement; a tense, relentless rhythm returns in the fourth, only to recede to a haze and a grim quote from Georgia congresswoman Lucy McBath, whose own son was murdered less than a year after Martin. Somber and agitated themes conjoin in the conclusion, rising to a cold, fateful stop.

Spellman-Diaz and Ellis exchange Indian-tinged melismas as Reena Esmail’s The Light Is the Same gets underway, its mashup of contrasting raga themes rising to a delicate intertwine. John Whittington Franklin reads the words of his historian dad, John Hope Franklin in Frederic Rzewski’s triptych Sometimes. The first movement has Ellis playing somber variations on Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child behind a characteristically commonsensical observation: “We need a new American Revolution that will create a new ideology of comradeship in the great enterprise of building a society in which every man and woman can face tomorrow, unencumbered by the burdens of the past or the prejudices of the present. This calls for a revolution in the heart and soul of every American. This is what the first American Revolution did not have. This is what the new American Revolution must have.”

The harmonies grow more brooding over a stately pace, then the voices diverge in steady counterpoint before circling back in the second movement. Soprano Janai Brugger sings a Langston Hughes text in the bitterly circling conclusion. Rzewski has never shied away from tackling important political issues, from the Attica massacre onward, and this is one of his most memorable and unselfconsciously vivid works.

March 2, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Suspensefully Cinematic, High-Spirited New Classical Works From the CCCC Grossman Ensemble

The Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition’s Grossman Ensemble is the brainchild of Augusta Read Thomas. Her game plan was to create a group which could intensely workshop material with composers rather than simply holding a few rehearsals and then throwing a concert. Their album Fountain of Time – streaming at youtube – is contemporary classical music as entertainment: a dynamic series of new works, many of them with a cinematic suspense and tingly moments of noir. Percussionists Greg Beyer and John Corkill, in particular, have a field day with this.

They open with Shulamit Ran’s picturesque Grand Rounds. Oboe player Andrew Nogal, clarinetist Katherine Schoepflin Jimoh, pianist Daniel Pesca and harpist Ben Melsky get to send a shout-out to Messiaen and then a salute to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores. Terse accents from horn player Matthew Oliphant and saxophonist Taimur Sullivan mingle with the acerbic textures of the Spektral Quartet: violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen. Furtiveness ensues and then the chase is on! The ending is anything but what you would expect. Told you this was fun!

Anthony Cheung’s triptych Double Allegories begins with sudden strikes amid suspenseful, wafting ambience, heavy on the percussion: Herrmann again comes strongly to mind. The midsection is built around a deliciously otherworldly series of microtonal, stairstepping motives, subtle echo effects and ice-storm ambience. The finale comes across as a series of playful but agitated poltergeist conversations….or intermittent stormy bursts. Or both, Tim Munro’s flute and the percussion front and center.

David Dzubay conducts his new work, PHO, which is not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook – creepy bongos, shivery swells, tense bustles, pizzicato strings like high heels on concrete, breathy atmospherics and hints of a cynical Mingus-esque boogie – for playfully maximum impact. It’s the album’s most animated and strongest piece.

Tonia Ko‘s Simple Fuel was largely improvised while the ensemble were workshopping it; it retains that spontaneity with all sorts of extended technique, pulsing massed phrasing in an AACM vein, conspiratorial clusters alternating with ominous microtonal haze.

A second triptych, by David “Clay” Mettens, winds up the record. Stain, the first segment, bristles with defiantly unresolved microtones, gremlins in the highs peeking around corners and hints of Indian carnatic riffage. Part two, Bloom/Moon pairs deviously syncopated marimba against slithery strings. The textures and clever interweave in Rain provide the album with a vivid coda. Let’s hope we hear more from this group as larger ensembles begin recording and playing again: day after day, the lockdown is unraveling and the world seems to be returning to normal.

March 1, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dynamic, Tuneful, Playful Outside-the-Box Solo Bass From Daniel Barbiero

Those of us who play low-register instruments tend to think of them as complementary, which in most styles of music they almost always are.

But inevitability theories of anything, whether history or music, are not healthy, and they don’t hold water. Maybe it’s high time we got past them.

With its sheer catchiness, playful sense of humor and dynamic range, bassist Daniel Barbiero‘s solo album of graphic scores, In/Completion – streaming at Bandcamp – will get you thinking outside the box, whether you’re a player or a listener. “At their best, graphic compositions are both beautiful and provocative. Beautiful in that they can, when artfully done, stand as independent works of visual art,” Barbiero asserts in his liner notes.

You could say that the album’s opening number, Root Music by Makoto Nomura, was written by nature itself, a vegetable patch that the composer planted in shallow soil whose roots turned out to be visible. Barbiero chose to interpret it as a series of catchy, hypnotically circling series of looping phrases in the high midrange.

Traces, by Silvia Corda, offers many choices of riffs and how to arrange them: Barbiero uses a generous amount of space for his emphatic, vigorously minimal plucks and washes. His solo arrangement of Alexis Porfiriadis‘ string quartet piece Spotting Nowhere makes a good segue and is considerably more spacious and often sepulchral, with its muted flurries and spiky pizzicato.

Barbiero recorded Paths (An Autumn Day in a Seaside Town), by his four-string compadre Cristiano Bocci on their recent duo album. The terse theme and variations of this solo version are more starkly sustained and expansive, yet whispery and sparkling with high harmonics in places, minus the found sounds from the shoreline which appear on the duo recording.

Barbiero employs a lot of extended technique on this record, especially in his deviously slithery, harmonically bristling lines in Bruce Friedman’s fleeting OPTIONS No. 3. Wilhelm Matthies’s GC 1 (2-9-17), a partita, is rather somberly bowed, yet Barbiero also incorporates some subtly wry conversational phrasing.

5 Paths 4 Directions, by Patrick Brennan comes across as contrasts between purposefulness and anxiety. Barbiero winds up the record with a stark, allusively chromatic interpretation of Morton Feldman’s Projection 1, originally devised for solo cello.

February 28, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Angelica Olstad Captures the Terror and Alienation of the First Few Months of the Lockdown

Pianist Angelica Olstad ls one of the few New York artists to be able to put the tortuous first several months of the lockdown to creative use. Her new solo release Transmute – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, often downright chilling, rather minimalist recording of a series of themes from four French Romantic works. Olstad reimagines them as a suite illustrating the terror and isolation of the beginning of the most hideously repressive year in American history. And it isn’t over yet. In the meantime we owe a considerable debt to Olstad for how indelibly and lyrically she has portrayed it.

Rather than playing any of the four pieces here all the way through, she deconstructs them, usually to find their most menacing or macabre themes. Then she pulls those even further apart, or loops them. Erik Satie is the obvious reference point. The first and most troubled segment is based on The Fountain of the Acqua Paola from Charles Griffes’ Roman Sketches, Op. 7. It turns out to be a creepy, loopy arpeggio matched by sketetal lefthand, with light electronic touches and snippets of field recordings. Yes, some of them are sirens. A simple, icy upper-register melody develops, then recedes, the menacing music-box melody returning at the end.

Track two, Death + Sourdough is a mashup of a handful of themes from the Ravel Sonatine, at first reducing it to a rising series of Satie-esque snippets. Then Olstad hits an elegant, ornate series of chords, but once again loops them. She returns with an even more troubled, resonant minimalism.

An Awakening, based on the Oiseaux Triste interlude from Ravel’s Miroirs has spacious glitter over spare lefthand, distant sirens and crowd noise from Black Lives Matter protests panning the speakers

The closest thing to a straightforward performance of the original is her steady, rippling, picturesque take of Cygne sur l’eau from Gabriel Faure’s Mirages; she titles it Brave New World. Here and only here does the music grow warmer and offer a glimmer of hope, tentative as she seems to see it. Let’s hope that’s an omen for days to come. If she’s brave, maybe we’ll be lucky to see Olstad in concert somewhere in New York this year.

February 26, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catchy, Thoughtful Rainy-Day Sounds From Modern Nature

Modern Nature play a tuneful, individualistic blend of pastoral jazz and chamber pop with tinges of vintage 70s soul music. Their new album Annual is streaming at Bandcamp. They like nature imagery and long, catchy, circling phrases over simple, muted drums.

They open the record with Dawn, a hazy miniature balancing bandleader Jack Cooper’s uneasy, lingering guitar over Arnulf Lindner’s overtone-laden bass drone. Elegantly uneasy soul guitar anchors frontwoman Kayla Cohen’s muted, half-whispered delivery as Flourish gets imderway, up to a big, anthemic chorus with Jeff Tobias’ fluttery sax and then back down. From there they segue into Mayday, which has a funkier swing but is just as hypnotically circling.

Spacious, incisive piano and balmy sax mingle with syncopated guitar jangle throughout the album’s fourth track, Halo. In Harvest, the band build very subtle variations into a staggered, loopy hook. They bring the record full circle with Wynter. “Outside the trees are groaning,” Cohen sings with an airy calm over the resonant, brooding clang of the guitar. Let’s hope the lockdown doesn’t destroy this band as it has so many others, and we get to hear more from them.

February 24, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Eclectically Catchy Big Band Album by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players

Does listening to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players transform them from a seventeen-piece big band into a trio? One of the premises of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that some particles are so small that merely observing them changes their state. It’s an extension of the basic idea that some tools are too heavy for the job: you don’t use a hammer where just your thumb would do.

Ultimately, Heisenberg’s postulate challenges us to consider whether some things will always be essentially unknowable: a very Islamic concept, when you think about it. But you hardly need special powers of observation to enjoy this big band’s energy, and catchy themes, and pervasive sense of humor. Their album Gradient is streaming at Bandcamp. There’s a high-energy sax solo on almost every one of bandleader/conductor John Dorhauer’s compositions here, sometimes expected, sometimes not.

The opening number, Boombox, makes a momentary Mission Impossible theme out of the old surf rock hit Tequila, then hits a Weather Report style faux-soukous bubbliness for a bit before shifting toward a gospel groove beneath Matthew Beck’s joyous tenor sax.

The second track, Nevertheless She Persisted is a slow, slinky gospel tune, Stuart Seale’s tersely soulful organ ceding the spotlight to a low-key, burbling trombone solo from Chris Shuttleworth and a big massed crescendo from the brass. Subject/Verb/Object has clever, rhythmless variations on a circling, Ethiopian-tinged riff, in an Either/Orchestra vein; the polyrhythms that ensue as the piece comes together and then calms to an uneasy syncopation are a cool touch.

Four Sides of the Circle begins as a stately, mysterious, Indian-tinged theme for choir and piano, then chattering high reeds take centerstage as the song almost imperceptibly edges toward dusky, modal soul over a familiar Radiohead hook.

The East African tinges return, but more cheerily in Plasma, with its rhythmically tricky interweave of counterpoint. Mahler 3 Movement 1 is exactly that: a moody, jazzed-up classical theme that rises from rumors of war, to brassy King Crimson art-rock fueled by Chris Parsons’ burning guitar, to chipper, Gershwinesque swing over a quasi-reggae beat and then back.

The record winds up with the Basketball Suite. The first segment, Switch Everything is the band’s Dr. J (that’s a Grover Washington Jr. reference). Part two, Point Giannis is probably the slowest hoops theme ever written: Dan Parker’s hypnotic bassline brings to mind a classic Jah Wobble groove on PiL’s Metal Box album. The band take a turn back toward booding, pulsing Ethiopiques with Schedule Loss, Adam Roebuck’s incisive trumpet contrasting with James Baum’s suave, smoky baritone sax. It ends with the album’s warmly funky, vamping title track An entertaining achievement from an ensemble that also includies saxophonists Natalie Lande, Kelley Dorhauer and Dan Burke, trombonists Michael Nearpass, Josh Torrey and Dan Dicesare, trumpeters Jon Rarick and Emily Kuhn and drummer Jonathon Wenzel.

February 23, 2021 Posted by | funk music, gospel music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Obscure Treasures From the King of Dark, Wrenching, High Romantic Angst

In these perilous times, who better to spend an hour or so with than the king of High Romantic angst, Sergei Rachmaninoff? The repertoire is vast. There are so many obvious choices: one far less obvious collection is The Complete Rachmaninoff Works and Transcriptions for Piano and Violin, played with dynamic intensity by violinist Annelle Gregory and pianist Alexander Sinchuk and streaming at Spotify. Bridge Records put this out in 2017.

Although the iconic Russian composer only wrote three pieces (that we know of) for violin and piano, there are a grand total of seventeen other transcriptions of some of his most famous and haunting themes included here as well. The duo kick off the record with the first of his original three, the Romance in A minor. This waltz may be a student work, but it’s achingly gorgeous, laced with Asian tinges and occasional slashing chromatics.

His other two original arrangements, grouped together as Deux Morceaux de Salon, Op. 6, are an even more brooding Romance, with some of Gregory’s most richly resonant midrange playing, and a lickety-split Hungarian Dance with strangely bell-like piano.

Most of the other arrangements are either by the composer’s old violinist pal and occasional bandmate Fritz Kreisler, or by another violinist, Jascha Heifetz, a brilliant Rachmaninoff interpreter. Kreisler’s first is a stripped-down version of the famous, searching theme from the second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 (the godfather of all angst-ridden piano pieces). It seems a little fast.

The most irresistibly outside-the-box of the Heifetz versions is the reinvention of the immortal (and crushingly venomous) G Minor Prelude Op. 23, No. 5 with a subdued drive that could almost be cumbia, The Prelude, Op. 23, No. 9 is furtive and insectilishly creepy – this is the one for your Halloween mixtape.

Heifetz’ reinventions continue with the Romance, Op. 21, No. 7 “It’s Peaceful Here,” a fond miniature, then the Romance, Op. 21, No. 9 “Melody” with some arrestingly fluttery doublestops from Gregory. Sinchuk’s belltone phrasing in the Etude-Tableau, Op. 33, No. 2 is sublime, while Gregory has a jaunty good time with the lilting Etude-Tableau, Op. 33, No. 7. And a final morsel, Oriental Sketch, flits by with only hints of the pentatonic scale.

Kreisler’s version of the Italian Polka, a rarity, has unexpected klezmerish flair; the Romance, Op. 38, No. 3 “Daisies” has more than a hint of a Mediterranean pastorale. And the iconic romantic theme, the 18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini comes into clearer focus in this stripped-down treatment.

Another Romance, Rachmaninoff’s song It Was in April – reinvented as an instrumental by Konstantin Mostras – is an attractively Spanish-tinged miniature. The duo give a practically Satie-esque plaintiveness but also quasi-operatic drama to the Mikhail Press arrangement of the Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3, No. 5 “Serenade.” Press – a violinist and Rachmaninoff contemporary – also recasts the iconic Vocalise with as much cantabile quality as a voice could conjure.

The two give a nocturnal restraint to Mikhail Erdenko’s chart for the Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4. Nobody seems to know who came up with the one for the version of the “Oriental Romance” Op. 4, No. 4 but it’s one of the most anthemic and vividly imploring songs here (the title is misleading – there’s no discernible Asian reference).

February 22, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkly Colorful Cellist Gyda Valtysdottir Celebrates Her Fellow Icelanders

The last time that cellist Gyda Valtysdottir was on this page, it was 2013 and her atmospheric trip-hop/postrock band Mum had just put out their Smilewound album. Since then she’s taken a deeper plunge into new classical music. Her latest album Epicycle II – streaming at Bandcamp – is a collection of enveloping new electroacoustic works by colleagues from her native Iceland.

The first track, Skúli Sverrisson’s Unfold, is an increasingly brooding, almost maddeningly unresolved series of duotone chords, up the staircase, then down and around. In her airy high soprano, Valtysdottir half-whispers over stately, minimalist pizzicato in Ólöf Arnalds’ loopy waltz Safe to Love, rising to some bracing doublestops.

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Mykros has looming lows, hazy atmospherics and approximations of whale song. Valtysdottir digs in triumphantly when Úlfur Hansson’s Morphogenesis….well…morphs out of pulsing, looped phrases to a gritty swell and then a long, stark upward climb with some flute-like harmonics – it’s musical M.C. Escher.

Kjartan Sveinsson’s Liquidity features stately, spare piano and also percussion. It’s the album’s lone departure into uneasily if anthemically crescendoing art-rock, in keeping with the composer’s background in atmospheric rock. The lingering tone poem Air to Breath, by Daníel Bjarnason has some breathtakingly anticipatory, cantabile phrasing.

Jónsi’s Evol Lamina (spell it backwards, Sonic Youth style) reflects the title – it’s the album’s lone throwaway. Appropriately, the record’s eighth and final composition is María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s Octo, an increasingly atmospheric series of variations on a brooding four-note phrase.

February 19, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Anthemic, Vividly Tuneful Octet Album From Ellen Rowe

The funniest song title on pianist Ellen Rowe‘s latest album Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion – streaming at Soundcloud – is The First Lady (No, Not Melania). It doesn’t seem to be a portrait of any first lady in recent memory. It’s too gentle for Michelle Obama, and there’s too much bluesy shuffle for Jackie Kennedy, let alone Rosalyn Carter. And none of the others from the past several decades rate. Maybe it’s a look forward to the time when we have a confidently easygoing woman in the Oval Office.

It always makes sense to open your record with a song you can close a show with, and the first number here, Ain’t I a Woman fits that bill perfectly. Rowe’s stern gospel voicings and an increasingly artful lefthand line anchor balmy individual horn voices – that’s saxophonists Tia Fuller, Virginia Mayhew and Lisa Parrott, clarinetist Janelle Reichman and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen coalescing with a steady, swinging march beat. Trombonist Melissa Gardiner takes it further toward New Orleans, Rowe closer to the blues, Fuller bringing it all together, followed by a slinky bass solo. There’s a lot going on here.

Balmy horn harmonies over Allison Miller’s suspenseful drizzle of cymbals kick off RFP (Relentless Forward Progress), lithely blippy bass underneath an increasingly soaring, optimistic theme that quickly hits a chugging latin groove echoed by a spiraling Jensen solo.

A biting, upward chromatic piano interlude opens off The Soul Keepers, a boogie with plush, sailing brass. There’s a bluesy late 40s Gillespie band purism here, Rowe’s gritty incisions ceding the stage to a triumphant alto solo and sagacious trombone.

There’s a wistful, gorgeously pastoral sensibility to Anthem, Reichman’s clarinet at the center over the bandleader’s precise chords, down to another purposeful bass solo. Saxes converse cautiously and broodingly as The Guardians slowly rises toward a pensive quasi-bolero groove: in a quiet way, it’s the album’s most vivid and strongest track. Rowe closes it with the playful but determined Game, Set and Match, a web of New Orleans riffs building to a return to Miller’s second line-inflected swing. At this point it hits you: this is one of the most tuneful jazz albums of recent months, arguably the high point in Rowe’s underrated career.

February 14, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Favorite of the New Classical Scene

“Anybody who thinks that classical music is dead wasn’t here,” this blog enthused about Caroline Shaw‘s sold-out concert with the Attacca Quartet at Lincoln Center a little over a year ago. Lincoln Center’s concert halls may be cold and dead at the moment – what a hideous reality, huh? – but you can hear some of what she played that night on their most recent album, Orange, streaming at Bandcamp.

Before Shaw won a Pulitzer (for a piece that wasn’t even one of her best), she was highly sought after as a sidewoman, both as a violinist and chorister. Since then, she’s become more widely known as one of the foremost composer-performers in the new classical scene. By the time she recorded this, most of the material had been thoroughly road-tested, and it sparkles with catchy, emphatic riffage and clever humor.

The title track, essentially, is Valencia, inspired by a big, juicy orange. Circling high harmonics, driving glissandos in the lows, echo riffs, suspenseful dopplers and brisk handoffs populate this artfully minimalist theme and variations. Brooklyn Rider gave the New York premiere of the trickily rhythmic yet anthemic opening track, Entr’Acte, earlier that year. The version here seems more spacious and richly textured with microtones, not to mention dynamics. The ensemble  – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee – take advantage of the studio space to sink to a whisper and then pluck their way back up toward a Philip Glass-ine circularity.

The album’s centerpiece is Plan & Elevation, a seven-part suite inspired by the same landscaped Washington, DC greenery that Igor Stravinsky was drawn to over a half-century ago. Steady pulses, jaunty pizzicato, indian summer haze, spirals across the strings and expertly textured harmonics interchange, rise and fall: Shaw’s reliance on the low midrange, here and elsewhere, is striking, particularly in the third movement’s slow upward slide.

In Latin, Punctum means “point;” it’s also the opening of a tear duct. The group really max out the dynamics, from a wry off-scene strut, to obliquely resonant late Beethoven references and some neat polyrhythms. The album’s longest and most hypnotic piece, Ritornello contrasts shifting tectonic sheets with playful pizzicato riffs over a quasi-palindromic structure with a devious false ending. The concluding number is the plucky, pastoral Limestone & Felt.

February 13, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment