Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gil Morgenstern Doesn’t Blink in the Lights

It’s worth remembering that the true test of a live performer is how well they hold up under duress. Maybe because of this latest spell of global warming, it was visibly hot onstage during violinist Gil Morgenstern’s latest edition of his Reflections Series concerts at WMP Concert Hall last night. To say that he didn’t break a sweat wouldn’t be close to true – instead, he and New York Philharmonic pianist Jonathan Feldman went with the heat and delivered a program that even when it wasn’t searing, was characteristically captivating. Morgenstern’s technique is such that he’s able to play anything he wants, which typically means challenging and exhilarating material. He also likes themes – this one was, as he put it, “exile and unfinished journeys,” inspired by a recent Isaac Julien exhibit in Miami, where Morgenstern also performs this ongoing series.

Morgenstern opened solo with Bruce Saylor’s Dante Suite, originally written as a theatre work, but as the violinist noted, he commissioned it to be workable as a concert piece as well. To call it a trip through hell and then out would be accurate in a general sense, although this particular tour has unexpected nuance. As Saylor (who was in attendance) wrote it, the Gates of Hell offer an understated drama, while the unconsummated adulterers Paolo and Francesca – destined to spend eternity with their backs to each other – receive a vividly plaintive, sad theme. Brunetto Latini gets to experience if not enjoy a fiery, gypsyish passage in the remarkably interesting Circle of Sodomites; the Woods of the Suicides, a powerfully evocative, brooding segment, became a showcase for Morgenstern’s judiciously vibrato-laden dynamics. The suite closed with a finale that ran from a repetitive circular theme to a crescendo packed with sizzling riffs that played against open strings.

Feldman joined in on Janacek’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, a suite about life under an enemy occupation (in this case, Austria’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in World War I) and finally the joy of overthrowing the oppressors. Feldman’s rippling precision gave Morgenstern the perfect backdrop for his apprehensive cadenzas and wounded, lyrical sustained lines. The piece ends somewhat unexpectedly on a theme of bitter remembrance rather than exuberance, and the duo brought it down, hushed, for a quietly potent impact. Morgenstern then tackled Erwin Schulhoff’s 1927 Sonata for Solo Violin, a gripping four-part suite that runs from an almost Celtic dance, through a bracingly intense overture, an off-center, Bartok-esque scherzo and finally an aptly titled Allegro Risoluto which was nothing short of hypnotic.

Morgenstern is also something of a raconteur, and as he cautioned the audience, his explanation of the intrigue behind Ernest Chausson’s Poeme, Op. 25 might take longer than the piece itself. It didn’t, but it was worth hearing Morgenstern relate how the piece related to an Ivan Turgenev short story, a couple of mistresses, a May-December marriage and a possible case of mistaken paternity: such things were common in the artistic classes in the Nineteenth Century. The piece itself seems to be an elegy for a failed or broken romance: it takes awhile to get going, but when it does it sounds suspiciously like Erik Satie stole a secondary theme for his Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear. Morgenstern and Feldman ended it with a bright melancholy, as Ravel might have done it. They closed the program with methodical renditions of a couple of late-career Smetana pieces which were pleasantly if generically consonant, in an early Romantic vein; the duo could have finished with the Chausson and taken a well-deserved breather and the show wouldn’t have suffered. Morgenstern’s Reflections Series returns to WMP Concert Hall on April 14, followed by stops in Italy in May and Boone, North Carolina in June.

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February 18, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ran Blake and Sara Serpa Make the Ultimate Noir Vocal Jazz Album

This is what David Lynch was going for with Angelo Badalementi and Julee Cruise but never quite managed to nail. Sara Serpa’s expertise is vocalese, a style at which the Portuguese-born chanteuse is ideally suited, yet it’s something she only utilizes on a couple of numbers on her new album Camera Obscura. Her English accent may not be perfect yet but her interpretation of the arrangements here, and her teamwork with her former New England Conservatory teacher, the legendary noir jazz pianist Ran Blake, is extraordinary. She approaches these songs with a devastating clarity and vulnerability: her delivery is completely unadorned, yet absolutely resolute and ultimately fearless. This is arguably the best album so far this year in jazz, or for that matter any style of music, every bit as original as Blake’s landmark 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. A cynic might say that it’s what Hilary Kole should have done on her album with Brubeck and Hank Jones and all those other legends but didn’t.

Nat King Cole’s When Sunny Gets Blue gets a characteristically understated, minimalist treatment. As she does throughout the album, Serpa brings the most minute details of the lyrics vividly to life, particularly the disquieting ones. When she sings, “She lost her smile, changed her style, somehow she’s not the same,” a subtle downturn takes on the weight of an earthquake. Janet McFadden’s playful Our Fair Cat introduces a furry friend who is a murderer in theory – and in practice as well, Blake juxtaposing a blithe bounce with a grim gleam, Serpa taking it solo all the way up to the top of her range, completely deadpan, then Blake launches into a twisted little waltz. Folhas (Leaves), an original setting of a poem by Eugenio de Andrade offers something of a respite from the brooding intensity.

The Short Life of Barbara Monk is a spellbinding noir jazz waltz by Blake. Serpa’s wounded vocalese makes a chill-inducing contrast with Blake’s sinister music-box tinges – and takes the anguish up a notch when Blake turns on a dime and shifts into a fast Mingus-esque swing groove. A second Nat Cole cover, I Should Care, clocks in at a brief minute forty-two, dedicated to Monk and as to the point as it can be considering its murky ambience. A tune by Monk himself, Nutty has Serpa carrying the rhythm over jagged incisions by Blake. Driftwood is a terrifically apt Chris Connor homage, Serpa warmly remembering the beach in summer – and suddenly Blake hits an ominous chord, then leaves her out to dry, and the result is spine-tingling. The version of Cole Porter’s Get Out of Town follows in the same vein. “I care for you much too much” is laden with regret rather than a celebration, Serpa’s voice taking on a desperate tinge as the piano picks up the pace. “Be good to me please -” she stops just short of imploring. “We touch too much,” she asserts with a knowing roll of the eyes. They end the album with April in Paris, which starts out more like the dead of winter and stays like that most of the way, a far cry from the conventionality of the Sinatra hit. Together these two have raised the bar for jazz singing – and accompaniment – to an absurdly high level.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Minamo – Kuroi Kawa – Black River

Minamo is the Japanese term for the water’s surface. Beneath this particular surface runs an aptly titled Black River, occasionally bubbly and playful but often murderously powerful. This might be the best jazz album of the year, or the best album of the year in any style – the latest Tzadik cd by the duo project of Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and American violinist Carla Kihlstedt is equal part avant-garde/new music, with frequent references to Japanese folk themes. With its often violent drama,  much of it would make a killer (sorry) horror film score.  It’s a double cd, one featuring subtly and cleverly improvised, often Satie-esque miniatures, the other a live recording far more expansive and dangerous. What’s most immediately striking is the practically telepathic interplay between Fujii amd Kihlstedt – one would think they were twins, or at least sisters. Both use the totality of their instruments, Kihlstedt adept at hair-raising overtones, Fujii raking the inside of the piano with what sounds like steel wool when she isn’t generating tonalities on the keys that literally run the length of the sonic spectrum. For those with the courage to take the plunge, it’s an exhilarating ride.

Everything here seems rubato – while each musician will often introduce a steady rhythm, they’ll both cut loose without warning, yet without losing their grip on the atmosphere at hand unless they do so deliberately. The opening cut, The Murmur of Leaves sets a brooding, pensive tone that will recur again and again, sometimes much more harshly. The third track, East comes skidding in, Kihlstedt’s violin like a banshee astride a steed from hell, moving to a full-on horror-film assault before ending on a surprisingly subdued if still disquieting note. A music-box theme matching midrange piano against pizzicato violin maintains the suspense, which lets up with a completely silly if equally evocative vignette, two girls struggling to open what must be one heavy window. Another lighthearted number is literally a musical lolcat – it’s hard to imagine a funnier or more evocative depiction of ADD. Elsewhere, a pretty, reflective tone poem grows menacing; Fujii glimmers ominously in the upper registers against Kilhlsted’s graceful glides; Kihlstedt plays what sounds like a rousing bagpipe tune against Fujii’s circular hypnotics; and finally, with a big, fluttery crescendo, the sun emerges triumphantly from behind the clouds! But that’s not til track twelve.

The second cd opens with the title track, which explodes with a crash and a scream (Fujii and Kihlstedt, respectively), moving hauntingly in the span of almost fourteen minutes to the most minimal, plaintive ambience punctuated dramatically with empty space, Kihlstedt finally leading a hauntedly resigned, swirlingly hypnotic climb out of the hole.  The compositions here are all color-coded, though musically their colors don’t vary much from various shades of black and grey. Blue Slope scrapes and murmurs with rain-drenched sadness until Kihlstedt lets loose a couple of shrieks at the end, to which Fujii replies gracefully and sympathetically. Purple Summer is raw and aggressive, accentuated with vigorous vocalese. Red Wind is a game of tag, both instruments introducing playful, rather carefree motifs that sometimes make a strikingly jarring contrast with the darker tinges that rise up unexpectedly. Green Mirage – what’s up with these titles, huh? – masterfully works a slow crescendo into characteristically murky call-and-response. The concert concludes with a deadly snowstorm, Kihlstedt’s insistent wail signaling the start of the avalanche that they’re going to ride as it devastates everything in its path. Whew! There isn’t a rollercoaster around that can compare with this. Look for it at the end of the year around the top of the Best Albums of 2009 list here.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Satoko Fujii-Myra Melford – Under the Water

One of the most exciting piano albums of recent years, this Myra Melford/Satoko Fujii collaboration is an intense, often ferociously haunting yet sometimes extremely funny album. Fujii’s Libra Records released a limited-edition run of 500 copies, each with a one-of-a-kind hand-printed sleeve by klezmer accordionist Sachie Fujisawa. Of these, somebody saw fit to send one to l’il ole Lucid Culture [aside: (slap) Get your fingers off that thing! It’s a collector’s item! No, you’re not taking it home, you can listen to it right here]. A series of duo piano improvisations plus one solo piece by each performer, it’s a clinic in good listening (for anyone who plays improvised music, this is a must-own – memo to Libra: PRINT MORE!) and interplay, worth checking to see if it’s sold out yet or if there are (hopefully) more on the way. Each performer’s individual voice asserts itself here, Melford the slightly more traditionalist, Fujii (a Paul Bley acolyte) somewhat further outside. Both pianists use the entirety of the piano, rapping out percussion on the case and manipulating the inside strings for effects ranging from something approximating an autoharp, to a singing saw.

The first improvisation builds with sparse, staccato phrases from inside the piano, like a muted acoustic guitar. The second, The Migration of Fish is a high-energy, conversational feast of echo, permutation and call-and-response. Of the two solo pieces, Fujii’s Trace a River vividly evokes swirling currents, schools of fish and a bracingly cool fluidity. Melford’s Be Melting Snow, by contrast, is a murky, modal tar-pit boogie of sorts, practically gleeful in its unrelenting darkness. Utsubo (Japanese for moray eel) closes the cd on an exhilarating note. Fujii just wants to lurk in her lair and wait for prey, but Melford wants to play! And finally she cajoles Fujii out of her fugue (literally), and then they play tag, and YOU’RE IT! But Fujii isn’t done with lurking. She goes back between the rocks, way down with a pitch-black blast of sound, working both the keys and the inside of the piano and at the bottom of the abyss Melford adds the most perfect little handful of upper-register single-key accents, only accentuating the savagery of the ending. Wow!

May 21, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment