“Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, and we’ll club their heads in,” Laurie Anderson mused last night toward the end of a rapturous series of trio improvisations with bassist Christian McBride and cellist Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall. She was being sarcastic, of course, As a point of context, she’d brought up Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine, where at the end the author contemplates what might happen if rightwing American bellicosity abroad was launched here. Anderson suggested that the incessant tweets and fake news emanating from that lunatic fringe in the Oval Office could be a harbinger.
Like so many New Yorkers, Anderson was profoundly affected by 9/11, and accurately connected the sense of horror and being blindsided then to the state of the city today. That unease pervaded much of the trio’s hour onstage, balanced by a defiant, surprisingly kinetic joie de vivre. She was obviously the bandleader, and her collaborators were practically jumping out of their shoes to revel in a surreal, richly textural, frequently eerie ambience that gave them a series of launching pads for daunting if terse and purposeful displays of extended technique.
Ominous chromatic piano riff and grey-sky organ from Anderson anchored the centerpiece of her political commentary, strongly evoking a Bat For Lashes hit from the late zeros. The trio’s backdrop for a voiceover of a Lou Reed poem was just as troubling and troubled, rising from starry, elegaic ambience to fluttery horror and then phantasmagorically pulsing, microtonal upward drifts.
Balancing that relentless angst was the coy tale of Anderson’s successful run for middle school student council. As she told it, she’d written to Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, seeking advice, received a detailed letter in response, took his counsel to heart (kiss up to everyone, he said, more or less), and then won. And then sent him a triumphant thank-you note. Kennedy responded with a dozen roses. When the story made the local paper in Anderson’s Illinois hometown, “Kennedy had won the heart of every woman,” of voting age and otherwise, she told the crowd. They wound up the evening when Anderson hit her pitch pedal, took her vocals down a couple of octaves for a wry deep-space atmosphere: “We like stars because we can’t crush them,” her man-in-the-moon character informed the crowd.
The rest of the set was all instrumental. At one point, McBride responded to a sprightly volley of pizzicato from Anderson with a bittersweet twelve-note rock riff that would have been the envy of any artsy British band from the 70s. It was the night’s single most gorgeous moment. And he never reprised it. Otherwise, he spent most of the evening playing with a bow, parsing minutely inflected high harmonics and even some wryly creeping low-register glissandos when he wasn’t delivering steady, often circular minimalist riffage below the mist.
Anderson, bolstered by light effects via a couple of laptops, introduced monentary, flickering themes with plucky pizzicato phrases, keeningly ethereal microtonal cloudbanks and a couple of menacingly galloping interludes. Caught in the eye of the ice storm, Kodheli had the hardest job of anyone onstage and deftly found a middle ground. Often that meant taking the others’ roles, whether delivering stark staccato harmonic slashes way up the fingerboard, or providing sinewy basslines when McBride pounced and bubbled far beyond his axe’s customary range. The audience roared their approval with a series of standing ovations: clearly, we’ve reached the point where improvised music has the potential to draw a large audience if perhaps not a mass one. The time has come when places like Jazz at Lincoln Center should be booking creative musicians like Steve Swell and Wadada Leo Smith – and lowering ticket prices to where the average New Yorker can afford to see them.
It was a treat to get to hear Concetta Abbate on Sunday at Mayflower Bar in Fort Greene. Abbate is best known as a violinist and composer of beguiling chamber-pop miniatures, but she’s also a magically nuanced, expressive singer. Lately she’s been working on finishing up her Master’s at Columbia, so she hasn’t been playing out a lot.
This time was a rapturous, mostly improvised duo set with Kyle Farrell, who played a marimba-like instrument invented by Skip Laplante. Its series of eighteen evenly tuned metal pipes covered the span of an octave, laid flat atop a styrofoam box doing double duty as resonator and carrying case. Guitar maven Bob Bannister, who was in the house, called it a styrophone, and the name stuck.
Abbate began the show by improvising gracefully strolling melodies. singing and then riffing on a series of Rumi poems from an older and almost surrealistically literal English translation. Meanwhile, Farrell kept the otherworldly, microtonal ripples and pings going, occasionally using a daf frame drum for extra texture or rhythm. Later in the set, he removed a handful of pipes to pare down the available tones for what ended up sounding both more western and more Asian, depending on how close the harmonies were.
Singing in Spanish, Abbate also treated the crowd to a couple of Peruvian tonadas, one a plaintive traditional number and the other an original inspired by a training ritual employed by shamanic healers. After the set was over, impresario Rose Thomas Bannister – who has one of the deepest address books in New York and runs the weekly music series here – took a playful turn on the mallets. The show this coming Sunday, Feb 19 stats at around 2 PM and features excellent cellist/composer Leah Coloff, who’s best known for her Lou Reed collaboration but has an impressively eclectic solo catalog as well.
It took until about the halfway point in Bing and Ruth’s album release show last night at the Greene Space before the brunette in the front row finally rested her head on the shoulder of the adjacent sweaterboy. New Yorkers have been cocooning a lot lately: it’s hard to think of a more apt, or possibly more hopeful soundtrack for quiet reflection than the ensemble’s new record No Home of the Mind – available on vinyl and streaming at WNYC – which they played from start to finish.
Pianist David Moore has scaled down the original scope of the band from almost a dozen members to the current five, in the process further concretizing his signature blend of minimalism, indie classical and electroacoustic trance music. As the group’s instrumentals segued from one into another, they brought to mind acts as diverse as Anton Bagatov, Dawn of Midi without the thump, George Winston without the sentimentality, or even Bruce Hornsby if he’d gone into minimalism after his time with the Grateful Dead.
What was most impressive was how little the group relies on electronics. Other acts would take Moore’s looping phrases and have a pedal do all the heavy lifting. Not Moore: it’s one thing to play his gnomic clusters, and elegant arpeggios, and Philip Glass-ine phrases once with perfect timing; Moore did it over and over, with unwavering intonation and touch and rhythm and made it seem easy. Much of the time, he had his eyes closed. Clarinetist Jeremy Viner, who supplied subtly shifting shades enhanced by a pedalboard, might have opened his once during about 45 minutes onstage. The two bassists – Greg Chudzik and Jeff Ratner – took different roles, one anchoring the music with a series of low drones, the other playing higher up the fingerboard and adding the occasional, understatedly emphatic slow glissando. Mike Effenberger sat stage left, running the sound through a series of mixers, sometimes for minute timbral shirts or oscillations, occasionally for dramatic low-versus-high effect. Moore began with his most energetic phrasing, segued down toward enigmatic ambience, took a turn into minor keys for the night’s most acerbic moments and ended on a warmly nocturnal note.
Considering that Bing and Ruth usually play much larger spaces, it was something of a shock to see that the intimate Greene Space – a former deli about the same size as Hifi Bar – wasn’t sold out. Then again, everyone’s cocooning these days. Bing and Ruth’s next New York show is on April 10 at the San Damiano Mission, 85 N 15th St in Williamsburg, time/price TBA.
Just for the record, there is nobody with either the name Bing or Ruth in Bing and Ruth. There’ve been thousands of illustrious Ruths over the centuries; beyond a crooner of cheesy 1930s pop hits, a baseball executive, and the world’s most useless search engine, there haven’t been too many Bings. Here’s to this group for redeeming the name.
Sitting at the bar yesterday afternoon, a new musician friend’s eyes widened. “You went to Staten Island last night to see the 8th Shostakovich? I’d go to Staten Island to see that!”
An intimate crowd of Staten Islanders, a cool couple from New Jersey and at least one Manhattanite made it out to the Staten Island Art Museum Saturday night to see a string quartet subset of the Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble deliver a meticulous, absolutely chilling, transcendent performance of that harrowing piece of music along with two eye-opening world premieres, plus a similar work from the 70s, a smashingly intuitive bit of programming.
Dmitri Shostakovich reputedly wrote his eighth string quartet over a three-day span in 1959. As he put it, it was a self-penned obituary. The story goes that he was under the assumption that the KGB – who’d murdered so many of his friends and colleagues – were about to come for him. He’d been asked to formally join the Soviet Communist Party, a choice he’d dodged for decades.
Composer Andrew Rosciszewski – whose two premieres would follow on the bill – counted 158 moments when Shostakovich musically referenced his own initials throughout the piece: tracked, and followed, and as he saw it, ultimately dead in those tracks.
The group – violinists Izabella Liss Cohen and Mikhail Kuchuk, violist Lucy Corwin and cellist Timothy Leonard – channeled every frantic moment, every steady upward trajectory toward horror. The relentlessness they brought to the introductory chase scene, then the crushing irony in the merciless kangaroo court references afterward were a a cautionary tale to the extreme. One can only imagine how much more easily a death squad could have targeted dissident composers if Facebook had existed in 1959.
That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to both the quality of the material and the performance. The group closed with Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, which like the Shostakovich was written behind the Iron Curtain and, while less grim, builds a coldly immutable atmosphere and also contains sarcastic faux-pageantry. It’s also much harder to play. Leonard is a beast of a cellist: pedaling the same note resolutely for what seemed like twenty minutes, with perfectly unflinching inflection is a recipe for muscle cramps, among other pain, and he didn’t let up. Corwin shared many such moments, often in tandem with him, and was equal to the challenge. This endless conflict between relentlessness and restlessness brought to mind the question, which came first, this, or Louis Andriessen’s similarly mechanical if much louder Worker’s Union?
In between, the world premiere of Rosciszewski’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 made not only a perfect segue but helped complete the circle; they’re essentially the missing links between the two other works on the bill, a homage to Shostakovich and Gorecki as well as a prime example of how a 21st century composer can springboard off their respective styles. The ensemble played No. 2 first, uneasily conversational, emphatically minimal phrases juxtaposed with subtly shifting permutations on a theme, with a twisted, wickedly difficult microtonal klezmer dance of sorts as a scherzo in the middle. Which was extremely demanding, especially for Cohen, but she sprinted between the raindrops and slid through pools of microtones and made it look easy, as did Kuchuk when his turn came up. Rosciszewski’s First String Quartet was much shorter and came across as something of a study for the second, beginning with a bracing minor-key polka. Like Shostakovich, Rosciszewski’s work is distinguished by considerable humor and an omnipresent sense of irony. These pieces instantly put him on the map as someone worth watching: he deserves to be vastly better known
The Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble are artists-in-residence at the Staten Island Museum. The theme of their current season there is revolution, an apt choice this year; their next concert is March 4 at 8 PM featuring a program of vocal music TBA. Cover is $15/$5 for students.
“They’re amazing,” the friendly retiree whispered to her brand-new concertgoing pal, a New York City firefighter in his 20s. A couple of rows closer to the Carnegie Hall stage, two women in their forties, a married couple, quietly affirmed that. And after the mighty voices of the New York Choral Society had wound up their triumphant performance of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass there last night, a teen in the third row dressed like one of the rappers in the 80s group Kid ’N Play gave them a standing ovation. The accolades on the ensemble’s press page run on and on; this concert attested that just about every demographic in this city shares those feelings.
Spontaneous applause had broken out after the first movement, possibly triggered by how meticulously and seemingly effortlessly way the sopranos in the group had followed soprano soloist Vanessa Vasquez’s exuberant flurries of glossolalia with their own, in perfect unison. If you think that’s hard to do by yourself, imagine the challenge of having to match your bandmates’ cadences with that kind of split-second precision.
This piece got its nickname after the story spread that the composer had been inspired by a British admiral’s pursuit of Napoleon. That might well be true, considering that Haydn was an Anglophile. What it also sounds like is that he wanted to write something so glorious that it would earn him a follow-up commission. Beyond being a flamboyant birthday present for a Hungarian princess, its raison d’etre as a “mass for troubled times” doesn’t really make itself apparent until after the opening festivities. This long party for churchgoing late-18th century one-percenters ran its course before getting switched out for more formidable gravitas. The rest of the soloists – tenor Zach Borichevsky, bass Sava Vemic and mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer – locked in on Haydn’s signature humor, as did the choir and orchestra, who took it out in a decisively boisterous, precise yet comfortably fluid series of volleys.
The original program had that piece first on the bill, followed by Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, Op. 9. Flipping the script and putting the Durufle first was logical in that it’s much quieter and has none of Haydn’s fireworks. But it’s a vastly more profound piece of music, and the ensemble delivered it that way. The program notes alluded to the composer following Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, but other than a muted sense of grief, the two pieces have little in common. And this one is hardly easy to sing, with its so-ancient-they’re-new-again Gregorian chant themes and shapeshifting, uneven meters. But musical director David Hayes led the singers through an impeccably balanced rendition that offered guarded hope, something that’s been gravely in need over these past three weeks or so.
The orchestral performance was as sublime as the voices. Durufle, longtime organist of Notre Dame, peppers the work with poignant cameos: distant terror from a tritone riff or two on the organ; ghastly shivers from the low strings, uneasily starry resonance from the harp and a moment where first violist Ronald Carbone took centerstage in his section in the piece’s most harrowing if understated cadenza. Fischer got a solo as well and channeled deep, wounded soul in vivid contrast to her untethered ebullience in the Haydn.
The New York Choral Society sing the New York City premiere of James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion at St. Bartholomew’s Church on April 8 at 8 PM with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and organist Jason Roberts.
“The years catch up with you, but my agenda remains the same,” Philip Glass said, five years ago. This past evening at Carnegie Hall, to celebrate Glass’ eightieth birthday, Dennis Russell Davies led the Bruckner Orchestra Linz through two New York premieres of Glass works as well as the world premiere of his Symphony No. 11. By and large, the concert was as much of a present to what appeared to be a sold-out audience as it was to the composer.
It was a shock to discover that Glass’ 1997 Days and Nights in Rocinha – an equally kinetic and hypnotic tone poem of sorts – had never been performed here. It’s sort of the Ravel Bolero as the bastard child of Julia Wolfe and Angelo Badalamenti might have written it. The orchestra gave it a meticulously dynamic performance. Davies, a longtime Glass champion, looked nervous as its first unexpected, muted burst of low brass appeared, but by the end the music had reached his hips and he was swaying along triumphantly. Meanwhile, Glass sat in the front row of his balcony box, leaning on his elbow, chin in hand, inscrutable. The piece made a good choice of opener: the few moments of percussive sprinkling, wryly humorous stops-and-starts and hints of Egberto Gismonti tropical elegance foreshadowed a good proportion of the music to come.
Angelique Kidjo sang the New York premiere of a Yoruban creation triptych that she’d written with Glass. He’d done his homework, a rigorous analysis of the language’s phonetics and syllables so as to enable a smooth correspondence between lyrics and music. The first part was something akin to Jeff Lynne gone latin. The second, with its steady volleys of arpeggios over uneasy chromatics, was a striking and familiarly haunting look back to Glass’ iconic and perhaps career-defining Dracula soundtrack. The third was the closest to an orchestrated African folk song. Kidjo matched raw emotion to blues-inflected sophistication, notwithstanding some sonic issues early on – she was amplified, the orchestra wasn’t.
The show concluded with the new symphony, which could be viewed as a career retrospsective. It had every one of Glass’ signature tropes: dry humor matched by a similar flair for the unexpected; artfully subtle rhythmic reshaping; those broken major triads that the composer loves as much as wary chromatic vamps and moodily shifting accidentals; and unabashedly resonant beauty. Much of it was like one of his string quartets fleshed out with dense washes of extra strings.
Until the third movement, there weren’t many individual voices flickering through the enigmatic cycles of notes, but when they appeared, those motives – a droll oboe, a ghost of a tuba, a woodsy clarinet – were perfectly precise. The ensemble negotiated the second movement’s sudden but very cleverly disguised change of beats with similar aplomb. The third began with a rather vaudevillian percussion intro and for awhile was a real scherzo, until the orchestra turned a corner abruptly and…that’s where Glass’ joke became too good to give away. Glass’ music is so easy to get lost in that there are some things that are hard to see coming despite what can be innumerable deadpan hints of it.
What you should really do is not spoil the ending for yourself: just go see it the next time it’s performed here. Which it will be, probably sooner than later. Lucky concertgoers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina can see the orchestra play the first and last pieces plus Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Robert McDuffie tomorrow, Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at UNC Memorial Hall at 114 E. Cameron Ave; $30 tix are available.
Pianist/organist/conductor Miho Hazama writes big, blustery, fearlessly energetic big band jazz themes. Her music is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word: sophisticated, individualistic and innovative. There’s no one in the world who sounds like her. She loves dynamics – despite the heft of her compositions, half the time only half of her band, or even smaller subsets of the group, are playing. She loves bright, catchy hooks, and her material is obviously a ton of fun to play: a good percentage of New York’s top big band jazz talent comprise her epic large ensemble M-Unit. They have a gig at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Jan 25, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is pricy, $30, but this group is worth it. It’s good to see such an interesting band getting a chance to play to a more or less captive audience.
It was a lot of fun to catch the group playing one of the series of midday shows at another midtown spot, at St. Peter’s Church on the east side, back in August. Coventional wisdom is that musicians don’t really wake up til the sun goes down, but the group was a the top of their game despite the relatively early hour. Their first number, Mr. O opened with momentary pageantry from the strings, then quickly gave way to a clustering piano theme beefed up by the ensemble, then down to a bustling, bouncing alto sax solo over the rhythm section. Hazama’s chart gave the group a chance to have fun throwing big, bright splashes of color against the sonic canvas, piano adding a solo that rose to breathless, towering heights. A yakuza gangster undercurrent added devious suspense.
They followed with an enigmatic piano theme over a syncopated clave beat, vibraphone carrying the melody over a lustrous backdrop with hints of both Russian Romanticism and cheery 70s Philly soul, hitting another suspensefully rippling piano-and-rhythm-section interlude before the piece rose again. Like her colleagues Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck, Hazama loves unorthox pairings of instruments: this one featured bass clarinet in tandem with violin.
The string quartet opened the number after that, then backed as a moody flugelhorn solo quickly turned into a clever Rodgers and Hart quote. As the strings rose toward the end, a sense of melancholy and longing developed, increasing as the music dipped to the strings and piano. That’s typical of how counterintitively Hazama works.
Maybe predictably, Hazama’s earliest composition on the bill followed the set’s most trad, swinging trajectory. The most ambitious was the title track to her lavishly brilliant 2012 debut album Journey to Journey, anchored by a tensely circling piano riff while individual voices shifted in innumerable directions, an uneasily dancing alto sax solo in the center of it all. The group dipped to a charming, balletesque exchange of pizzicato strings, then rose to a vintage 70s soul riff and an explosive outro.
There was plenty of other material on the program, but that’s where the recorder ran out of juice. And it was hard to hear the band intros to keep track of who was playing what in the boomy church basement space. That won’t be a problem in the plush sonics at Lincoln Center.
Midway through his set Saturday night at the Firehouse Space, alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal explained that the spring-wound, tersely tuneful compositions he’d been playing with his Awaz Trio reflected themes he’d explored during a year’s intense study on scholarship in Calcutta. Which triggered a sonic treasure hunt: where was he hiding the raga riffs? There’d already been a couple of moments where those were obvious, one where guitarist Travis Reuter worked familiar variations against a central note, another where Mittal echoed the otherworldly microtones of one of his mentors, the great Hafez Modirzadeh. Otherwise, the big takeaway from this show was how much fun three outside-the-box thinkers can have using centuries-old Indian classical melodies as a springboard for jazz improvisation.
Mittal represents a newer generation of creative musicians whose work resists categorization – in the same fearless spirit as the older generation of Wadada Leo Smith et al. So this kind of unorthodox lineup – sax, guitar and drums – is right up Mittal’s alley, with Reuter and drummer Alex Ritz on the same page throughout their roughly hourlong set. Interestingly, the bandleader served less as fuel for the fire than calm anchor amidst Reuter’s majestic washes and pointillistic eighth-note volleys, and Ritz’s artfully syncopated attack on the traps. Mittal’s compositions typically came more or less full circle after all sorts of unexpected tangents, to a catchy hook that might or might have been Indian. Classical music from that part of the world owes its perennial popularity to the fact that there’s no harmony, only melody: it makes sense that tunes that survive for millennia are easy to sing along to.
The performance slowly coalesced out of dreamy, rainy-day sonics with a hint of the wary, otherworldly microtones that Mittal would tantalize the crowd with from time to time. The trio hit an irrepressibly riff-driven strut into misty, Messiaenic guitar atmospherics overhead that vanished when Reuter began a long, bubbly series of eighth and sixteenth-note runs, then diverging from straight-up rhythm. Meanwhile, Ritz methodically expanded the perimeter. With his lithely leaping accents, Mittal brought the music all the way back around, running through Reuter’s staggered raindrops against Ritz’s funky, snappy syncopation and surprise solo drum interlude.
Their second number was an artful development from the simplest ingredients: an insistent pedal note, then a vamp and finally a riff, Mittal handing methodically to Reuter and then parsing the rhythm sparsely and judiciously. Reuter echoed that approach with a more spiky attack. Foreshadowing what they’d do later, they took a split-second pause and then brought back the original pulse, Ritz driving it with a methodically crescendoing, altered trip-hop groove.
A darkly ambered blues-based tune built a hauntingly shady atmosphere, in a JD Allen vein, Mittal’s austere minor-key phrases stern and mournful as Reuter provided acidically jangly ambience and Ritz prowled and bulldozed around them. It wasn’t hard to imagine Allen’s trio with Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums doing the exact same thing.
Ritz brought a thunderous rumble from across distant plains to an uneasily enveloping guitar/sax duet. Reuter’s decision to use his sustain pedal to build an awestruck, cathedral-like ambience held the audience rapt and hushed. Then it was Ritz’s turn to open his hi-hat, use his mallets and stir a cauldron of whooshing gong resonance behind Mittal’s pensive, woundedly minimalist blues lines. The night’s final number featured Mittal’s leaping phrases over an acidically circular choral pattern from Reuter as Ritz brought back the shuffling, funk-inflected trap groove that shifted on a dime into a graceful, almost gamelanesque polyrhythms. As a full house of spectators wafted away into the slush and ice outside, the tall, striking raven-haired beauty who’d been sitting in the second row put it best: “We’re all high on the music!”
Saxophonist Roy Nathanson and pianist Arturo O’Farrill are part and parcel of New York. O’Farrill is one of the world’s great big band leaders, composers and pianists, has shifted plenty of paradigms in latin jazz and has never backed away from a fearlessly populist political stance. Nathanson was a pillar of the downtown jazz world before John Zorn’s ascendancy and eventual embrace by the mainstream, served as a crucial piece of punk jazz – and then noir jazz – pioneers the Lounge Lizards and since then has done the same with the Jazz Passengers, who’ve had a long association with Deborah Harry. That band makes a very rare Brooklyn appearance this Dec 22 at 8 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy. If you can figure out how to get there (it’s about fifteen minutes away from the C train, if the C is running at all), you can see an iconic New York act in one of the few remaining shadowy neighborhoods they evoke, for the price of one of the bar’s pricy crostinis and something in the tip bucket. The people who run the place are very pleasant – it’s sort of a mashup of Pete’s Candy Store and the Jazz Standard – and the sound is excellent.
Nathanson played a killer duo set with O’Farrill at Barbes back in July. While neither have much of an association with free jazz, they’re both great improvisers, so it was a treat to see them fly completely without a net, spar, banter and pull away from each other, only to reconverge as if nothing wild or crazy had just happened. The two opened with a brooding jazz poetry number contemplating what home means in an age in New York when even the right wing media admits that two thirds of the population are either homeless or a paycheck away. The two traced an austere, chromatically charged minor-key blues direction, Nathanson intoning wordlessly and ominously when his sax wasn’t veering away from the center into flurries of hard bop. O’Farrill echoed him with his own spirals at the end, up to a frenetic, jackhammer coda where Nathanson went bounding through O’Farrill’s hailstones. Then they made uneasy fun out of stairstepping polyrhythms, again picking up the pace with an icepick intensity.
The pair edged their way slowly toward swinging barrelhouse blues, but without the striding lefthand, hit a pantingly rhythmic interlude, then Nathanson blew smoky, moody phrases as O’Farrill backed into the shadows, elegant and melancholic. The next number found the two pairing off wry, leaping staccato accents as O’Farrill built stygian, resonant ambience, pedaling way down at the bottom of the keys with his left as Nathanson drew him further and further into a duel, eventually hitting his octave pedal for an almost Balkan accordion effect. They edged back toward the original gritty, bluesy theme from there, O’Farrill finally hitting a semblance of a stroll with the rhythm.
As the stroll became a brisk stomp, Nathanson rose to O’Farrill’s intensity, finally signaling the relentless pianist onto a siding and then a long, slow, decline that picked up when Nathanson went to the mic again. “All hands on deck are going down,” he explained coldly. Then he flipped the script with a cozy wee-hours melody as O’Farrill gave the vehicle a more-or-less steady, enigmatic chassis.
From there, Nathanson went for the saxophone equivalent of bluesmetal as O’Farrill rippled and sprinted through cluster after cluster in the upper registers before hitting a dancing, insistent pasage. By now, it was clear that they weren’t about to follow much of any straight-ahead rhythm and were teasing both each other as well as the crowd, no matter how much New Orleans congeniality Nathanson might send wafting through the room.
The duo’s next sparring match paired off wavering, airy sax phrasing with clenched-teeth piano rhythm punctuated by the occasional detour toward blues. O’Farrill opened one of the later numbers with a frantic, Carla Bley-ish lefthand attack. There was at least another 45 minutes to go in the performance, a cuisinart version of a standard and then another hard-hitting new theme and endlessly uneasy variations if memory serves right, but by then the recorder was out of memory. See what kind of magic you can be witness to when you go a little off the beaten path in Brooklyn?
Considering that string players ought to be ideally suited to writing string quartets, Caroline Shaw is not only a capable violinist but also a strong singer with a background in choral music. So the cantabile quality and sheer catchiness of her string quartets were hardly a surprise when the Attacca Quartet played a grand total of five of them at National Sawdust Sunday evening.
Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for a piece whose ambition trumped content. The works on this bill made for a far more accurate and rapturously entertaining survey. The Attaccas chose well in championing her, and she deserves champions as committed to and capable of tackling her often dauntingly challenging if reliably tuneful and ever-growing repertoire.
The influence of Bach shone clearly throughout several of these pieces, but through the prism of Philip Glass, in terms of elegantly circling, hypnotic, subtly shifting motives and arpeggios. Distant echoes of late Beethoven and a “nested Bach cantata,” as Shaw grinningly put it, were present. There were also flickers of composers as diverse as Kaija Saariaho and Per Norgard, particularly during the music’s most shimmery, atmospheric moments, most of them a setup for Shaw’s next surprise. None of these pieces followed the traditional four-part mold. The most expansive was Plan & Elevation, an uninterrupted, seven-part suite inspired by the greenery at Dunbarton Hall, a Washington, DC area landmark. The shortest and most overtly triumphant was Valencia, the concluding number, its lithe, loosely tethered, balletesque flourishes celebrating the virtues of a particularly juicy orange, bursting with flavors both sweet and acidic.
Shaw writes very generously for string quartet. Second violinist Keiko Tokunaga got plenty of time in the spotlight, as did first violinist Amy Schroeder and violist Nathan Schram, as Shaw’s kinetic phrasing lept from voice to voice. She makes maximum use of a cello’s most stygian resonances, delivered exuberantly by cellist Andrew Yee. The opening work, Entr’acte, featured all sorts of hushed, muted harmonics, microtones and the occasional devious glisssando. Each member of the quartet seemed pushed, if quietly, to the limits of their extended technique with volley after volley of pizzicato, in addition to gentle doppler or siren effects.
One number explored a Roland Barthes concept about the perception of a particular tone. Punctum, the next-to-last piece, Shaw averred, means both “point” in Latin and also the opening of a tear duct: it turned out to be more of a pensive pavane than a cavatina. The sold-out audience was drawn in raptly and finally exploded in applause: nobody knew when the concert was going to end since there was no program printed or online, at least at the venue’s page. It’s hard to think of an ongoing string quartet cycle that’s going to be more fun to keep in touch with than this one.
The Attacca Quartet’s next New York concert is on January 20 at 7:30 PM featuring Beethoven’s String Quartet No 10, Op 74, “Harp” in E-flat Major, and String Quartet No 9, Op 59 No 3 in C Major, plus Michael Ippolito’s Big Sky, Low Horizon, at Church of the Holy Trinity, 3 W. 65th St.