Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The American Composers Orchestra: Cutting Edge Sounds from Across the Decades at Carnegie Hall

The American Composers Orchestra’s main mission is to whip new material into shape so as to entice other enterpising orchestras to play it. A daunting task, but one they’ve tackled gamely since the group’s inception back in the 90s. The group’s appeal is bittersweet: along with many tantalizing premieres that other orchestras will pick up, the ACO also plays a lot of material that you’ll never hear again. And that they’ll never play again, which makes their job so much harder considering that they have to learn so much of their repertoire, such that it is, from scratch. Friday night’s Carnegie Hall performance was typically eclectic and more historically-infused than usual, featuring an old standard of the avant garde that’s lived to claim its place, more or less, in the standard repertoire; a rarity from Mexico; two new works utilizing wavelike motives, the second much more successfully than the first; and a suite of new songs by the orchestra’s main man Derek Bermel.

They opened with a rather twistedly fascinating rarity, Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ 1932 suite, Alcancias (literally, the title means “piggy bank;” figuratively, it can also mean “bullet” or “pimp”). The middle section was an uselfconsciously pretty pastorale lit up with a lyrically panoramic solo by oboeist Kathy Halvorson. On either side of it was a frantic, Keystone Kops pastiche of snippets of folk tunes, ragtime and vaudeville, so blustery that the pageantry seemed suspiciously forced. A satire, maybe?

The evening’s piece de resistance was the New York premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Manchay Tiempo, a chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque depiction of waves of fear inspired by childhood exposure to a documentary about terrorism in 1970s Chile, where her mother grew up. Frank flaunts her multiculturalism fearlessly: no idiom is off limits. That fearlessness extends to subject matter and emotional content as well, in this case a series of slow, menacing glissandos and murderously creeping crescendos, a knife’s-edge depiction of terror in the night, noir in the purest sense of the word. The surreal, off-center, tone-bending “is this really happening” ambience finally faded down to an unexpected calm at the end, a terrorized child finally drifting off to sleep. It’s impossible to think of a more gripping piece of music performed on a New York stage this year.

Gunther Schuller‘s Contours was considered radical when it debuted in 1958. More than half a century later, the composer’s vision has been more than validated: it’s still pretty cutting-edge. Conductor George Manahan, poised on his heels, was clearly having a good time with Schuller’s long, suspenseful crescendos, jazzy rhythms and bracing post-Ives lyricism and so was the orchestra. The program concluded with Bermel’s new suite of Eugenio de Andrade songs, delivered guardedly and methodically in a cool alto by Luciana Souza, building tension and intensity almost imperceptibly through deft manipulation of a series of circular, often hypnotic, yet equally kinetic themes.

One upcoming ACO series of concerts that’s been regularly promising is their Underwood readings of new works by up-and-coming composers at the DiMenna Center this coming June 5 and 6.

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April 5, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Young Lions Celebrate An Old One At Weill Hall

Rude as it is to eavesdrop, some conversations are worth repeating. Saturday night’s concert at Weill Hall featured characteristically eclectic and enormously entertaining music from Gunther Schuller and his younger colleague Mohammed Fairouz, seated together inconspicuously in the crowd. After one of Fairouz’s pieces had reached its end, Schuller nudged him. “About one note – I think it’s an “A” – in the second movement…it’s like punching a hole in it. It doesn’t work. With such beautiful atonalities, to have this bland note? You have to take it out.”

Which sums up the enduring value of Dr. Schuller – whose recent 85th birthday the musicians and composers were celebrating – better than any accolade ever could. Imagine: a composer who would use any means necessary to avoid blandness. Rather than taking umbrage, Fairouz was grateful that the former New England Conservatory president had given the work such a close listen. “I’ll find it,” he responded confidently.

This was a celebration of substantial music, which took itself with the utmost seriousness at times; other times, not at all. In a brief onstage discussion prior to the concert, Schuller – “A guy who doesn’t rely on the system,” as Fairouz understatedly explained – campaigned to expand his concept of third-stream to a “brotherhood or sisterhood of music,” to include not only jazz and classical but all global musical styles as well. Schuller pointed to the internet era’s explosion of available recordings as reason for optimism and the eventual triumph of complete syncretism, but reminded that effort and willingness to abandon outdated preconceptions would be necessary to cement the paradigm shift.

The music was just as much a celebration of eclecticism. Schuller’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone opened the program, pianist Katie Reimer nimbly negotiating its starlit expanses and trickily skipping passages, alternating and then converging with Michael Couper’s effectively dynamic birdcalls and pensive deliberateness. Farouz’s Furia, from 2010, followed, a string quartet of Tema Watstein and Michelle Ross on violins, Mary Sang-Hyun Yong on viola and Michael Katz on cello establishing a grave, foreboding ambience for baritone Mischa Bouvier to stoically deliver a lyric by Borges. In essence, it’s about reaching the pinnacle of success and hating every minute of it. As Katz coyly injected a little swoop and dive into the horror-movie sonics, Bouvier stern and immobile, it took on an amusing surrealism.

A far more serious suite, Fairouz’s Four Critical Models was next. Assembled as two statements, each followed by a response, the first, a bustling, agitated semi-conversation between Couper’s sax and Rayoung Ahn’s violin sought to illustrate a Milton Babbitt quote about the struggle for serious music’s survival. Its rejoinder employed marvelous microtonal violin intricacies inspired by something Theodore Adorno once opined. A hideous anti-Arab screed by British playboy imperialist Evelyn, Lord Cromer was surprisingly downplayed via some bright and probably intentionally generic Middle Eastern tropes; its response, inspired by Edward Said, worked a beautifully still, logical series of gently shifting sostenuto notes or simple motifs.

The evening’s showstopper was Schuller’s Paradigm Exchanges, a series of witty, shapeshifting vignettes that often segued seamlessly from one to another, with echoes of both Bartok and Messiaen. Here Reimer, Katz and Watstein were joined by Vasko Dukovski on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Magdalena Angelova on flute. Through its fourteen movements, pretty much every possible permutation of the quintet was utilized. Watstein’s confidently eerie tritone-packed solo made a high point in the opening fanfare, followed by a vivid conversation, Dukovski maintaining a perfect cool as Katz’s cello grew more agitated. As the segues continued, it became impossible to figure out where one movement ended and the next began. Angelova provided strikingly apprehensive accents against Messiaenesque stillness; a bit later, Reimer got to hint gleefully at an evil buffoon theme, and then illuminate a murky bass clarinet drone. Eventually a canon emerged; the whole ensemble brought it to an end with an eerie flourish, an escape from a roomful of funhouse mirrors. Somewhere there’s a surreal suspense movie that needs to be made to utilize this literally mesmerizing, cinematic work.

April 26, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Delfeayo Marsalis’ Sweet Thunder Matches the Transcendence of the Ellington Original

Funny, true story: trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis asks Gunther Schuller to write the liner notes for his brand-new octet arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Sweet Thunder. Schuller writes back and basically says, “This album is a mistake.” He’s a little more tactful than that, but there’s no mistaking how he feels about it (you can read the whole thing in its entirety in the cd booklet). In case you don’t know who Gunther Schuller is, he’s a composer – an interesting, entertaining one – and has been a pioneer in jazz education for decades (he established the first conservatory degree program in jazz studies, at New England Conservatory in the 1960s). He also sees himself as keeper of the Ellington flame, so in addition to being possessive, he’s on the side of the angels. What also comes out in his response to Marsalis is that he’s a bigger fan of the early Ellington than the post-1950 works including all the suites. No disrespect to Dr. Schuller, but those suites are transcendent, possibly Ellington’s greatest achievements. One critic has already singled out Marsalis’ new arrangements here as being better than the original, which is a matter of taste. Whatever yours might be, it’s inarguable that this new album is just as good as the original. Which makes it pretty amazing: this majestic, Shakespearean-themed tour de force is one of the most exhilarating pieces of music ever written. For anyone who might wonder, why on earth would anyone want (or dare) to remake this, here’s the answer: if you could play this, and you had the chance, wouldn’t you?

Delfeayo Marsalis created his charts using the original Ellington scores in the Library of Congress. As Schuller was very quick to point out, the sound is brighter and the new score noticeable more terse (as you’d expect from an octet doing the work of the whole Ellington Orchestra). And yet, the towering, epic grandeur is still here in full force, whether on the title track that opens the suite, the bustling Sonnet to Hank Cinq or the slyly tiptoeing, bluesy swing of Up & Down, Up & Down. As befits a composition inspired by Othello, there are Moorish interludes and these are the choicest among the literally dozens of potent solo spots here. Bass clarinetist Jason Marshall brings a somber gravitas to Sonnet for Sister Kate; Branford Marsalis swirls with chilly exhilaration on soprano sax on Half the Fun and Sonnet for Caesar; and Victor Goines brings the intensity to uneasy heights on sopranino sax on Madness in Great Ones. Pianist Victor “Red” Atkins’ rippling, slashing depiction of the murder scene in Sonnet for Caesar, as reminiscent of Liszt or Schumann as the blues, might be the single most adrenalizing moment of them all. And Delfeayo Marsalis’ considered, jeweled lines, with or without a mute, are plainly and simply deep: he gets this music. The rest of the band elevates to that same level: there may be more complicated composers than Ellington, but none more emotionally impactful. Mark Gross on alto sax, Tiger Okoshi on trumpet, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Reginald Veal, Charnett Moffett and David Pulphus on bass, Winard Harper and Jason Marsalis on drums join in singlemindedly, alternately triumphant and wisely restrained.

It’s also worth mentioning that this album, stylistically if not thematically, bears some resemblance to the Live at Jazz Standard album issued last year by the Mingus Big Band. In reviewing that one, we hedged that allowing it for consideration as a candidate for best album of the year was absurdly unfair, the equivalent of allowing the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete in a home run hitting contest. The same could be said for this one. In case you haven’ t heard, the Mingus Big Band album ended up winning a Grammy – so here’s predicting that this one will win one too. The night of the awards, don’t forget that we said it first.

February 28, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sue Mingus Talks About the Mingus Big Band’s New CD, Live at Jazz Standard

The Mingus Big Band’s new album Live at Jazz Standard came out a little earlier this year, an exuberant and often exhilarating mix of classics by the pantheonic composer and bassist. The virtuosic repertory unit who play Mondays nights at the club leap from noir tension, to dizzying bop, to genially melodic playfulness with a focus, intensity and camaraderie that does justice to the composer (full review here coming soon). Sue Mingus – Charles Mingus’ widow, executive producer of the album, and tireless advocate and director of the Mingus repertory bands – gave us some characteristically reflective responses to our questions about the album:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: How happy are you with the new cd?

Sue Mingus: It’s great musicians playing great music. We’re pleased.

LCC: Can I ask why the decision was made to record on New Year’s Eve rather than just some random date? Didn’t the prospect of your typical noisy, increasingly drunken New Year’s Eve crowd scare you off? Admittedly, a Mingus audience tends to be somewhat more urbane than your average New Year’s Eve crowd, but didn’t that concern cross your mind?

SM: No, not at all. We like our audiences any night of the week. We chose to play New Year’s Eve since it’s one of the big nights of the year at a club where we have a residency, the Jazz Standard. Also because we were recorded by NPR that night and broadcast nationally. I should add that the main reason for doing this cd was that we were celebrating, fifty years later, three of the seminal jazz albums. 1959 was a banner year for jazz: Coltrane, Brubeck, Mingus and a number of others put out some of their most important albums. Entering 2009, we were celebrating, fifty years later, Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Blues and Roots, and Mingus Dynasty. We chose material from those three albums.

LCC: You served as executive producer on this album, so you also selected the songs?

SM: Yes, since it was those albums we were celebrating.

LCC: What is your specific role in relation to the various Mingus repertory bands: this group, the Mingus Big Band and also the Mingus Orchestra and the original unit, Mingus Odyssey?

SM: I started them and I hired them!

LCC: Do you also audition the musicians?

SM: We don’t really need to audition – word gets around! A week ago, last Monday we had a wonderful trumpeter, Avishai Cohen and also Greg Tardy on tenor sax sitting in. New musicians are coming into the band all the time. We have a large pool, over 150 musicians who have learned this music: I have a big spectrum I can draw from each week. I hire the musicians each week and commission the arrangements. A lot of the arrangements are made by the members of the band, for example, last week the band played Meditations for Moses, arranged by bass player Boris Kozlov.

LCC: In addition to the many extraordinary musicians who play Mingus regularly with this unit, there are a couple of ringers on this album, notably Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums – who really takes the energy to the next level – and Randy Brecker on trumpet. How did they come to be part of this recording?

SM: Randy played with us from the start – he was in the original Mingus Dynasty frequently. He’s been playing this music since Charles died and well before: he and Michael Brecker were on the last album with Charles, who as you know, by that time couldn’t play since he was in a wheelchair. Randy’s been a Mingus player for a long time; Jeff plays with us frequently. It wasn’t like outsiders who didn’t know the music.

LCC: It’s been awhile since the Mingus Big Band did an album. When was the last one?

SM: 2007. Live in Tokyo.

LCC: Can we talk a little about the individual tracks? What do you prefer, the Elvis Costello version of Hora Decubitus or the version here, with vocals by Ku-umba Frank Lacy?

SM: I like them both obviously. We love Frank Lacy, he’s a marvelous jazz singer, but we also love Elvis Costello’s version – as you know, he wrote the lyrics.

LCC: Do you have a favorite among the songs on the new album?

SM: It’s hard to choose favorites with Mingus! You want something uptempo? You want something with a classical form, a latin piece, bebop, a beautiful ballad, an extended work? It’s all part of the whole.

LCC: Since the Jazz Standard has one of your bands at the club every Monday, have you thought of doing what the New York Philharmonic Orchestra does, recording pretty much everything and making it available for sale on itunes?

SM (laughs): All it takes is money! We’ve done a dozen albums with the Mingus Big Band, so much of the repertoire has been recorded. But as you know it’s a vast amount of music, and it’s very expensive, to hire the musicians, a studio, the engineers and so forth. It’s a worthy idea, if you know any volunteers for the cause, send them over!

LCC: How do you feel about the fact that a lot of people, maybe the majority of people who hear this album will only hear it in mp3 format rather than at its sonic best on the cd?

SM: I don’t know. People’s listening habits over the years have changed so incredibly much. What do you think?

LCC: I think that the ipod is the new transistor radio. Back in the day there were people who listened to the radio that way and were perfectly satisfied, just as I think that some people are satisfied with the sound of a mp3.

SM: People are used to mp3s now, some people prefer it…

LCC: True. One last question, this is not an easy one, not something we could ever know for sure: what do you think Charles Mingus would have gone on to do, had he lived? When we lost him, in 1979, for example, hip-hop was just around the corner. Do you think he would have embraced that?

SM: It might have been not as challenging as he would have liked. An album he listened to the most the last six months of his life was Cumbia and Jazz Fusion. There’s one whole side that’s cumbia jazz. The other side is the piece Todo Modo, which is “third stream,” as Gunther Schuller called it, classical-jazz fusion. Had he lived, I think that’s the direction he would have pursued. But with Mingus, you never know.

LCC: Any Mingus news that we don’t know about yet that we can report here?

SM: We are having our third Mingus high school competition that will take place in January, our newest project where high school students from around the country come out and compete, February 18-20 at Manhattan School of Music. It’s nice to hear kids playing Mingus with such enthusiasm, and so attentively. This summer, there’s a free concert at Washington Square Park with the Mingus Orchestra on July 27 – and then the band tours!

June 16, 2010 Posted by | interview, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Art-I-Facts: Great Performances from 40 Years of Jazz at NEC

One can only imagine how many treasures might be kicking around in the New England Conservatory’s archive, especially if this new compilation album is any indication. It’s a collection of concert recordings from the forty years since jazz became a standard part of their curriculum. The artists here, all either NEC faculty or alumni, make a formidable allstar cast.

There are two tracks here that stand out as absolutely extraordinary. The first, from 1976, is the hypnotic, otherworldly beautiful Zeibekiko, a confluence of two traditional Greek dance tunes with Rebekah Zak’s piano moving methodically out of just-over-the-horizon starlight into blazing midnight sky, Joe Maneri’s clarinet streaking out of it, then descending with a casual grace. The other is an exquisitely indomitable take of India by Coltrane with George Garzone on tenor, John Lockwood on bass and Bob Moses on drums. Moses’ own composition Reverence is included here, a dizzying, towering 2006 performance by the NEC Jazz Orchestra. From behind the valves of his trombone, Bob Brookmeyer leads the the Jazz Orchestra through a warmly soulful 2005 version of his nocturne, Cameo. That group is also featured on a joyously expansive 2003 version of Jaki Byard’s big, anthemic Aluminum Baby, counterintuitively showcasing the rhythm section.

A 1990 recording of George Russell’s All About Rosie suite by the NEC Big Band opens in a swirling blaze of circularity, followed by a triumphant slow swing blues and a ferocious final movement with a long, suspenseful solo from the bass and an all-too-short, reverb-drenched one by the guitarist (soloists on this one are unfortunately not cited in the liner notes). Guitarist Jimmy Guiffre alternates Bill Frisell-ish tinges of delta blues, funk and country in a trio performance of his composition The Train and the River. Also included here are solo versions of Monk tunes by Byard, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist Ran Blake. The only miss is an easy-listening FM pop ditty stuck right in the middle of the cd which really has no business being here or anywhere else.

Another quibble, and perhaps an unavoidable one – most likely because so much of this material had to be remastered from the original analog tapes – is that the recording levels vary from track to track, a problem that disappears if you adjust the sequence. Fittingly, the NEC is releasing this album to coincide with their 40th anniversary series of concerts around New York from March 20 through 27 (the complete list of shows is here). Now it’s time for Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music to open up their vaults and follow suit.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Borromeo String Quartet at Jordan Hall, Boston MA 11/30/09

The Borromeo String Quartet hardly need the press, but it was awfully nice to be able to catch them in concert. As expected, they brought an element of transcendence to what was, at least from this particular vantage point, a crazy weekend. And it was encouraging to see a good crowd come out for what was a characteristically adventurous bill, cold drizzle and all, a program as captivating as it was elegantly nightmarish. They opened with Mohammed Fairouz’  ambient, aptly titled Lamentation and Satire, the first part a tone poem whose tensely acidic counterpoint moved between restrained mournfulness and full-out grief, the second featuring cellist Yeesun Kim expertly walking a tightrope between the swirling violins of Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong up to a couple of devious false endings, and a bell-like staccato device on the cello that despite itself reverted to the anguish and loss of the preceding segment.

The ensemble has been recording the complete Gunther Schuller quartets. Monday’s choice was the Second, hypnotic, ambient and off-kilter with a Messiaenesque defiance of any kind of consonant harmony, particularly the abrasive, aggressive second movement with its brief, jazzlike solos around the horn. The anxiety never let up, all the way through to the final lento passage where each soloist got to leave the stage in turn, cello ending it with a pizzicato funeral bell.

They ended the night with Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet. It’s a snidely provocative piece, opening with the same kind of savagery and wrath as Bartok’s First, but it’s also full of fun and the group accentuated that.  Several of its passages – a series of faux Romantic codas, a furtively swirling “dance” and the chase scene that sets off the final movement – would make a very effective biography of a really annoying, blustery individual. But there’s also the remarkable third movement that comes in as a complete surprise on the heels of an offhandedly vicious cello solo, cantabile yet upbeat. And then the Nutcracker-esque pizzicato fourth movement, as caustic and dismissive as it was bouncy and amusing. And the long, disembodied crescendo of the final movement, building to the flourishes of a false ending slapped aside by the menacing growl of the cello.

The Borromeo String Quartet remain ensconsed in Boston (at the New England Conservatory and the Gardner Museum) after a long run at Lincoln Center; their next performance is a selection of Haydn quartets on December 13 at 2 PM at the Forsyth Chapel in Jamaica Plain, MA.

December 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment