Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Trio Con Brio Copenhagen Impress the Upper West

Monday night at the popular upper westside Music Mondays series, one of the organizers remarked that sometimes chamber music ensembles from outside this country aren’t as well-known here as they deserve to be. The reverse is also true – and that’s too bad. This particular series devotes itself to community concerts by world-class performers, and Trio Con Brio Copenhagen definitely delivered. There’s an easy explanation for much of this group’s warm chemistry and singleminded approach to the music: violinist Soo-Jin Hong and cellist Soo-kyung Hong are sisters. Rounding out the group, Danish pianist Jens Elvekjaer played with an uncluttered fluidity, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes chillingly dark.

The three pieces on the bill were arranged generously so that each group member could shine. They opened with Haydn’s “Gypsy” Trio in G Major. It’s a ceaselessly pleasant, chipper work, one of Haydn’s literally hundreds like it: a couple of waltz themes, variations and call-and-response and a rondo at the end that gave Elvekjaer a chance to air out his chops with a brief but memorable series of powerhouse, articulated runs. Their next piece, Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor was transcendent, moodwise completely the opposite of the breeziness that preceded it. Elkvekjaer launched into its spacious, murkily minimalism with a visceral sense of dread, Frankenstein walking on eggshells. An apprehensive, somewhat manic flurry of strings was the first of many moments for the cellist to dig in and match the piano’s ambience goosebump for goosebump. Even the more lively second movement was only a respite from the distant, quietly resounding low-register motifs that took it down and out with a white-knuckle intensity. Has this group recorded this? They ought to.

They closed with a warmly rippling take on Tschaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, a showcase this time for the violin, which gets a few solo passages to build suspense or shift the mood in one way or another, and made the most of all of them. It’s classic Tschaikovsky: wounded angst peering out from behind the comfortable, nocturnal swells, a somewhat sad, courtly dance and a conclusion marked “lugubre.” This particular version wasn’t lugubrious, though – it was downright haunting, even though the composer almost completely sidesteps brooding minor-key Russian tones in favor of more comfortable central European colors. Music Mondays’ next concert is November 7 at 7:30 PM at Advent/Broadway Church, 2504 Broadway at 93rd St., featuring the reliably adventurous Miro Quartet.

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

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series: Fearless Otherworldly Beauty

Just as the most exciting things in rock music are happening in the small clubs rather than in stadiums, the most exciting classical and chamber music these days typically happens off the beaten path. On and off, over the past several months, we’ve been peering into some of these dark but fertile corners: pianist Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series at WMP Concert Hall in Murray Hill may the most exciting of them all. Wednesday night she and her cohorts – cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and violinist Erno Kallai – tackled a program that was as diverse as it was individualistic, and frequently exhilarating. “Thank you for not watching American Idol,” Joan laughed.

First up was Brahms’ Trio in A Minor (Op. 114). Dating from 1891, it’s one of his final works. With its characteristic melodic beauty and alternating wary/warm passages, it follows a straight line back to Beethoven. There’s also some Brahms thinking outside the box, the gypsy passage at the beginning of the concluding allegro section being the most notable. This may be overly reductionistic to say, but essentially it’s a piece with assigned roles: the clarinet pensive, the cello mournful and the piano providing the energy and lighter contrasts. Joan, Thorsteinsdottir and Dukovski took those roles and gave them flair and personality.

For anyone who might have found that piece too predictable in its unselfconscious, pensive beauty, Bartok’s Contrasts, from 1938, was a feral, snidely joyous, jazzy treat. As Joan and Dukovski explained beforehand (they do that a lot, with a genuine passion for the music, which helps more than any pedantic program notes ever could), it was commissioned by Benny Goodman as a way to get Bartok an American visa just as Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was looming. The concept was to get the composer to deliver something sufficiently short to release as a 78 RPM single: for whatever reason, Bartok didn’t exactly comply. What he did was shoot a savagely gleeful spitball right in Der Fuehrer’s face. Joan has a vividly acute emotional intelligence, and she went on the assault from the beginning behind Kallai’s slashing incisions while Dukovski got to demonstrate the “mellow tone” mentioned in his bio (he’s actually an electrifying player, as he would remind a bit later on). Warped Romanticism made way for lurid ragtime, a feast of creepy atmospherics and a conclusion delivered with the glee of an escapee from certain death. Kallai put down his Strad and picked up the house Guarneri for that one since the violin part is out of tune: the vicious humor in his tritone-packed solo was viscerally delicious.

The quartet then took on the formidable challenge of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Written in a Nazi prison camp for piano, clarinet, violin and cello because those were the instruments that the musicians captured with Messiaen happened to play, it was premiered there on the same day that the clarinetist made a failed escape attempt yet sufficiently charmed his captors with his playing, Dukovski related, so that he escaped what would otherwise have been a summary execution. To say that it is harrowing is an extreme understatement. As with so much of Messiaen, its movements correspond to Catholic liturgy: beforehand, Joan encouraged the audience to experience it for its universality. Which makes perfect sense: Messiaen may well have written it primarily as an illustration of the coming of a heavenly eternity, but its subtext screams out defiantly, an anthem for escape from and victory over the Nazis.

Which is where interpretations of Messiaen differ: where some hear otherworldliness and mysticism, others hear the macabre. Clearly, Messiaen found the prospect of heavenly rest nearly as daunting as being murdered by the Nazis, and horror is everywhere in this piece, from the ominous early-morning exchange of birdcalls that open it, to the stunned, jagged, wounded cadenzas that punctuate the tense stillness, to the seemingly endless, almost horizontal clarinet solo that may be its most riveting point. Dukovski pulled that off without a hitch: with its endless sostenuto wash, it requires an almost interminable sequence of circular breathing, and is extraordinarily difficult to play as a seamless whole, but that’s exactly what Dukovski turned it into. Like her collaborators, Thorsteinsdottir is a fearless player who will rise to any intensity required, and she dug in with a mighty vibrato. A final cry for rescue was followed by still, judicious piano that signaled an eventual if hardly unscathed victory over the demons. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the musicians clearly felt the music as overwhelming, intense and cathartic as the crowd did. Alexandra Joan’s next Kaleidoscope Series concert at WMP Concert Hall (31 E 28th St. between Madison and Park Avenues) is on April 27, a characteristically intriguing program featuring piano works by Enesco, Ravel and Mohammed Fairouz.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Tivoli Trio

This is exquisitely creepy, surreal stuff. It’s as good a jazz album as has come over the turnstile here so far this year. Jazz pianist Frank Carlberg grew up in Helsinki, fascinated by carnivals and the circus – his neighborhood amusement park featured a small combo, the Tivoli Trio, with the unlikely combination of trumpet, organ and drums. As a composer, Carlberg particularly excels at big band arrangements; this time out, he endeavored to recreate what he’d heard as a child, if only in spirit rather than actual memory. It’s a deliciously twisted, disquieting ride, worth it for the rhythm section alone – John Hebert’s bass and Gerald Cleaver’s drums jump right in on the fun, each taking on a gleefully sinister, gnomish persona.

An off-center fanfare opens the album; bass and drums mimic a restless crowd, and then they’re off with Tricks, a scurrying, phantasmagorically creepy, repetitive music box themed tune. A chase sequence follows with suspenseful variations on the previous theme, Carlberg utilizing a marvelously eerie, repetitive series of horn voicings. On Rumble Mumble, drums take centerstage, Carlberg playing deftly diabolical tritone-flavored accents off them. They follow with a strange little vignette, circular piano riff against bass screeching and squealing like the ghost of a decapitated ape.

Bill’s Hat is sad, tired, possibly murderous little march that morphs into a swinging shuffle, the backstage crew at the sideshow having a little laugh at someone’s expense – Hebert gets to throw some knives at his bandmates’ feet as they dance around. On the next track, Two for Tea, the rhythm section bounces around playfully as Carlberg gets to throw knives this time. This is where the truth comes out: they’re a team of gremlins, everybody off on his own yet completely with the same mind when it comes to trouble. Next is another strange miniature with brief horror-movie, cello-like arco work by Hebert against methodical, glimmering block chords from Carlberg.

Devious and high-spirited, Potholes has Hebert providing atmospherics as the drums creep around disorientingly – then Carlberg comes sailing in, oblivious to the trouble the other two have just been up to. The most straight-up jazz number here, Spit (The Game) works from atonal punches on the piano to block chord work driven by judicious bass chords or scrapy bowing, Cleaver’s ever-present cymbal boom just a mallet’s-length away. Tumbles is evocatively if completely uneasily acrobatic with sizeable breaks for devious bass and drums; the cd winds up with the less-than-subtly menacing, expansive yet poignantly lyrical Harlequin and then a brief reprise for the crowd, Sgt. Pepper style. Put this on and then kill the lights – you’ll see it in December on our best albums of the year list.

May 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Orrin Evans – Faith in Action

We like to mix it up here. The most recent jazz album we reviewed was headphone jazz; the one before that was gypsy jazz. This one is solace-after-a-hard-day jazz. Pianist Orrin Evans leads a trio with bassist Luques Curtis and Nasheet Waits on drums here on his Posi-Tone Records debut, essentially a tribute to Evans’ friend and mentor Bobby Watson. Evans matches a precise articulation to a hard-hitting lefthand attack: his playing is cerebral, intense, sometimes febrile, often uneasy. It will pick you up and straighten your head out even as it plays games with your mind: there’s a lot going on here, as sharply focused as the playing is.

Evans kicks off with an original, the matter-of-factly bluesy Don’t Call Me Wally, switching up the time signature and getting a little march thing going on for awhile. The title track, like many others here a Watson composition has a shuffling My Favorite Things vibe propelled artfully by Waits’ lithe cymbal work. Wheel Within a Wheel has Evans cutting loose amidst lush sheets of cymbals by Rocky Bryant, Waits playfully doing three-on-four behind Curtis’ brief, incisive solo. Another Watson tune, Appointment in Milano has Evans bludgeoning a chromatic vamp a la McCoy Tyner.

The fifth track is essentially a funk song in shifting tempos, chugging bass propelling it as guest Gene Jackson’s drums add color. Beattitudes, by Watson, climbs out of the murk impressionistically and expansively; an Evans original, MAT-Matt prowls around over a hypnotic chromatic riff. The best song on the album is the title cut from Watson’s landmark 1986 album, Love Remains, done here as an understatedly rueful ballad, sustained chords over a matter-of-fact, resigned rhythm section and some deliciously ominous, starlit, upper register work from Evans at the end. The album wraps up with a no-nonsense stride number by Evans that gives Curtis a chance to up the intensity with a defiantly strutting solo, and a straight-up swing tune.

March 15, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Salvatore Bonafede Trio – Sicilian Opening

Italian jazz pianist Salvatore Bonafede blends diverse classic styles and pensive European melodies along with the occasional rustic Sicilian accent into a strikingly memorable, hummable mix on this new cd. In the style of another eminently catchy current composer, JD Allen, pretty much everything here clocks in at under five minutes, sometimes considerably less. Yet as indelible as the compositions are, the playing is impeccably tasteful and understated – if anything, these guys could cut loose a lot more if they felt like it.

The album opens with a jaunty New Orleans theme, quoting Brubeck liberally early on. According to the liner notes, the second cut is ostensibly Arab-influenced, but it’s basically a swaying, moody two-chord vamp into a catchy, bluesy chorus. Track three, Ideal Standard memorably addresses issues of communication or lack thereof via Bonafede’s tensely judicious minor-key phrasing. Bassist Marco Panascia maintains the vibe, voicing a solo that builds intensity as it follows Bonafede’s lines even as it brings the volume down to the lower registers. The trio follow that with a slow, expressive quasi blues, drummer Marcello Pellitteri deftly bouncing accents off the piano’s bass notes.

The warmly cinematic seventh track paints an Americana-inflected tableau evocative of the late Danny Federici’s solo work. Of the two covers here, Blackbird is a song that should be retired – no matter what Bonafede does with it, which isn’t straying particularly far from the original, you are only waiting for the moment to arrive when it’s over. But with his version of She’s Leaving Home, Bonafede really captures the understated exasperation and unspoken rage in the McCartney original. The other tracks include a tribute to Palermo that builds to the closest approximation of a scream that there is here; a hypnotic Dr. John homage, and a casually swaying number that blends gospel with an updated, martial WC Handy vibe. The album creeps up on you if you’re not paying attention – that’s how strong the melodies are.  The liner notes have an earnestness that’s often hilarious, like they’ve been babelfished backwards and forwards. Somebody get these guys a translator that speaks…that is to say, one with a voice that isn’t computer-generated.

March 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: The John Funkhouser Trio – Time

Jazz pianist John Funkhouser seems like the kind of guy who took the name he was given and ran with it. On his playfully titled new trio cd, he plays with the tasteful incisiveness and groove of a bass player…maybe because he is one. When drummer Mike Connors rattles and clatters and prowls around, Funkhouser hangs on a bright salsa motif until he’s done. When bassist Greg Loughman launches into a stark, extended bowed solo, Funkhouser works a hypnotic, circular phrase that ups the suspense. The cd title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the abundance of odd time signatures the three utilize, much in the same spirit as Dave Brubeck. As rhythmically challenging as much of this is, it’s also vividly catchy and tuneful. There should be more jazz like this.

Their version of Green Dolphin Street, which opens the cd, adds a latin flair and a smartly strolling, casual bass solo. The album’s first original, Ellipse, began as a not-so-simple exercise in polyrhythms, piano playing  in five in the left hand and on the right in seven while the bass stays in six (and ends a beat early on the sixth bar, thus rounding everything out at an even thirty-five). But it’s the furthest thing from math-jazz; it sounds perfectly natural, and Loughman’s plaintive bowing gives it a vintage Jean-Luc Ponty feel. Prelude and Fugue in A Minor is a characteristically irreverent take on Bach, kicking off with a cowbell solo, then taking its Teutonic menace to Puerto Rico where it begins to feel more at home. The two-part Dyin’ Nation/Emancipation begins with bass and piano doubling a restless unease, working the haunting vibe to where joy and triumph come in and take over. Eleventy-One is both a workout in eleven as well as a sly Hobbit reference (Bilbo Baggins was eleventy-one when he left the Shire for the final time), deviously funky stomp alternating with a pretty, lyrical theme that Funkhouser builds to big, blazing rivulets…and then back to the funk, Isaac Hayes style.

Alone Together reverts to neo-Brubeck, all tension between bright theme and more pensive undercurrent, Funkhouser clearing the clouds after Loughman has apprehensively planted them everywhere. Dating from a few days after the election of 08, Ode to a Lame Duck is surprisingly less a dismissal of the Bush regime than a brisk, understated requiem for a decade of torture and tyranny. With echoes of the haunting Roman Polanski collaborator Krzysztof Komeda, it’s the best number on the album. This time around it’s Loughman who gets to take the latin vibe deep into the low registers. The album concludes with Kelp, a gorgeously murky seaside tableau marked with some particularly poignant interplay between bass and piano as the cymbals whir atmospherically in the background. Give this to your Brubeck fan friends for Christmas and see if they can tell the difference.

December 22, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment