Kojiro Umezaki‘s axe is the shakuhachi, the rustic Japanese wood flute, an instantly recognizable instrument that can deliver both ghostly overtones and moody, misty high midrange sonics. Umezaki’s background spans the world of folk music and indie classical – he’s a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble -and is a frequent collaborator with groundbreaking string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Umezaki also has an album, Cycles, out from that group’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s maverick label In a Circle Records and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of originals along with reinvented themes from folk and classical music. As you might imagine, most of it is quiet, thoughtful and often otherworldly, a good rainy-day listen.
The opening track, (Cycles) America reimagines a theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as a solo percussion piece for Joseph Gramley, who opens it on drums with hints of majestic grandeur, then provides loopily resonant vibraphone. The album’s thoughtfully spacious second track, 108 is where Umezaki makes his entrance, joined after a terse, slowly crescendoing intro by Dong-Wan Kim on janggo drum and Faraz Minooei on santoor. It builds to a swaying and then rather jauntily dancing groove with hints of South Indian classical music as Umezaki chooses his spots.
The traditional Japanese lullaby that follows is as gentle – and ghostly – as you might expect from a melody that could be a thousand years old, a graceful solo performance. Umezaki then delivers a circular, uneasily looping piece modeled after a famous 1923 post-earthquake work by Japanese composer Nakao Tozan, bringing it into the present day as a tense, distantly angst-ridden contemplation of a post-3/11 world.
On For Zero, Gramley plays lingering vibraphone interspersed with the occasional emphatic cymbal crash or fuzzy wash of low-register synth. The album’s final track is a new version of a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider that originally appeared on the quartet’s 2010 album Dominant Curve, alternating between raptly inmersive atmospherics and edgy interplay between the quartet and the wood flute, a shakuhachi concerto of sorts.
Violists don’t usually play solo. It’s rarer still that a violist puts out a solo recording, considering the relative paucity of solo works for the instrument. But Brooklyn Rider’s brilliant Nicholas Cords – “The Sheriff” to his string quartet bandmates – has just released his solo debut, Recursions. Inspired by the theoretical glimpse into the infinite – some would say the supernatural – created by setting two mirrors face to face, the album explores repetitive patterns from across the ages. In so doing, Cords potentially puts himself on the hot seat in terms of sustaining interest. And he pulls it off – as he reminds in the liner notes, with repetition comes familiarity and then insight. Not only is this a very comforting album, it’s sonically gorgeous: the natural reverb at the “Orchard” where it was recorded enhances the music’s often otherworldly quality.
Cords opens with a Heinrich Biber passacaglia (postlude to the composer’s 1676 Rosary Sonatas), variations on a simple four-chord descending progression, hypnotic yet dynamically-charged, with subtle rhythmic shifts and a resilient sostenuto. A violin piece that’s translated well to the viola, it sets the stage for the rest of the record.
Cords’ trance-inducing, marvelously ambient arrangement of the Irish traditional tune Port Na BPucai follows. Edmund Rubbra’s Meditations on the Byzantine Hymn O Quando El Cruce works its way methodically from an oddly Celtic-sounding pulse to vibrant pizzicato chromatics, suspensefully crescendoing, insistent motives and then a rapt calm. Alan Hovhaness’ Chahagir (Armenian for torchbearer) is plaintive and haunting, emotionally what one would expect from the year 1945 – although it has a baroque tinge – Cords loosening his vibrato and letting the phrases linger. His own multitracked suite Five Migrations builds a series of looped melodies: an echoing Kayhan Kalhor-esque miniature; slow wary circles spiced with edgy doublestops; and Middle Eastern allusions (no surprise considering Cords’ long association with the Silk Road Ensemble).
Cords achieves cello-like lows throughout a tersely brooding take of Stravinsky’s Elegie for Solo Viola. The album closes with Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Viola, its somewhat peevish motives getting a lively bit of Bartokian agitation and moving from there through bracing morosity, jauntiness and austerity. Who is the audience for this album? Anyone with a taste for quiet, contemplative sounds with an edge.
New York’s Central Park Summerstage series of free concerts was not originally devised as a marketing mechanism to lure tourists to town, even though that’s how they’ve been presented for well over ten years: this city has a long tradition of free concerts in public spaces, many of them historic. Some landmark performances have taken place in this very space: the North American debut of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, to name just one. Tonight’s scheduled show with the Silk Road Ensemble featuring Yo-Yo Ma promised to be a highlight of this year’s season. Unfortunately, as a marketing device, it backfired, sending all the wrong messages to any visitor who might have had the misfortune to be there.
The opening act was a mix of professional musicians and public school students, ostensibly an attempt at some sort of music mentoring program that obviously isn’t working. That this particular unit wasn’t ready to perform in front of an audience in their own auditorium, let alone at an established venue, was frustrating, but it shouldn’t have been – although it raises the question of whether or not the promoters were able to afford a real opening act. High school bands aren’t necessarily inept. There are dozens of genuinely superb New York student ensembles who would have been more than happy to do the show for nothing, and would have delivered a performance that would have made this city proud. But this band was just plain awful. Even though it was a free concert, subjecting the audience – many of whom had stood in line in crushing heat for an hour and a half before the doors opened – to yet another an hour and a half of this travesty was insulting to the extreme. That the musicianship was less than competent is beside the point: no virtuoso could have made the program listenable. A ragged brass ensemble opened, unable to keep a simple vamp together despite the fact that there were no chord changes. Along with the music, there was a great deal of talking – apparently there was some kind of storytelling going on as well. After a brief, haphazard stab at opera, a couple of vaguely Asian passages and some funkless funk, a choir was brought up to sing a pop song that sounded like a Meatloaf arrangement of a nursery school alphabet rhyme. Apparently this group’s music director is unaware of the fact that a considerable amount of great music is very easy to play: had he or she never heard of Bach, or James Brown, or the Ramones? Even done raggedly, the Ramones are fun. But this band couldn’t do that. Or, they weren’t allowed to. While many of today’s struggling music students are tomorrow’s virtuosos, it’s safe to say that no student in this band has any future in music: anyone with real talent at the schools involved (Edward Bleeker Junior High School #185, Frederick Douglass Academy III, Granville T. Woods Middle School #584, and Public School/Middle School #161) would have quit after the first day.
Ultimately, the message that this sends to the audience is,”New York public school students are so retarded that they can’t be trusted to play Bach, or James Brown, or even the Ramones, so we have to make the music as stupid as they are.” And this will reverberate wherever this concert is discussed by the tourists who were there. “Our village band in [fill in the blank: Upper Volta, Kyrzygstan, the Azores] can play better than these losers. My kids are way better than any of these dumb Americans – and my kids never even practice!”
Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble were scheduled to play afterward: when, who knows. The interminable student “performance” was still going on as the mercury rose closer to the hundred-degree mark, eight PM came and went and audience members began filtering out in disgust.
Since they take their name and inspiration from the Blue Rider Group, the defiant, short-lived Munich assemblage whose membership included Kandinsky, Schoenberg and Scriabin, it only made sense that Brooklyn Rider’s concert Monday night at the Angel Orensanz Center would take place in the midst of an art exhibition. Like the composers the string quartet plays, the artists were a polyglot bunch and some of their work here proved to be equally dazzling. Kevork Mourad, who also plays saz (Turkish lute) and is a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, had several eerily vertiginous black-and-white works done in alternately bold and strikingly precise fingerpaint, evoking some of Randi Russo’s work. He also had a fascinatingly Escheresque concert hall – that’s not the half of it – echoed by the equally provocative, Escheresque Lennie Peterson illustration used as artwork for the string quartet’s new cd Dominant Curve. Also on display were what appeared to be photo transfers by Mary Frank, juxtaposing the playful with the gruesome, as well as a handful of casually striking ink-and-paper works in Farsi by Golnar Adili. All of these works are on sale, a portion of the proceeds to benefit the quartet’s next recording: they’re all up at the Brooklyn Rider site, scroll down the front page a bit and click on the vertical “Art Gallery” button in the middle.
There was also music. The new album is quite extraordinary, got a glowing review here and the songs from it that the quartet played were even more intensely and joyously delivered live. Cellist Eric Jacobsen admitted to a case of nerves playing in front of a crowd of friends: “But what is nerves but chemicals in your body getting you high?” he asked. “Thanks for getting us high.” With the bar in the back, what was on the walls and the group in front of them, it appeared that the audience was just as high.
That Debussy’s String Quartet, the closing number, wasn’t the highlight of the show speaks to the quality of the other works on the bill. That one they attacked with abandon, just a tad short of recklessly, cello intense, percussive and full-bodied, Nicholas Cords’ viola supplying a warm, almost hornlike tone during the quieter circular sections of the second movement. Their string rearrangement of John Cage’s darkly bluesy early piano work In a Landscape seemed on the album to be a series of artfully produced loops assembled by guest Justin Messina – as it turned out, it’s not. The group played every note of its hypnotically stately permutations, with Messina’s live electronics limited to a suspenseful drone. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s soundscape, …al niente, benefited from an inspired cello-driven raveup in the midst of horizon-induced, hypnotic ambience, and guest Kojiro Umezaki cleverly and playfully added both live shakuhachi and subtle electronic undercurrents to his own composition (Cycles) What Falls Must Rise. The opening piece, violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Achille’s Heel (a Debussy allusion) set alternately warm, memorably melodic solo passages, notably some lightning cadenzas by violinist Johnny Gandelsman, side by side with either acidic or lush atmosphere as background. They encored with the night’s most ecstatic work, an intense, hauntingly galloping version of Ascending Bird, the Kayhan Kalhor composition from their landmark collaboration with the Iranian composer, Silent City, from 2008.
It makes sense that pioneering string quartet Brooklyn Rider would feel close to Debussy, considering their background as classical players who, these days anyway, specialize in world music. The perennially cutting-edge Brooklyn group appear on the latest Silk Road Ensemble album; their first cd included strikingly original arrangements of Armenian folk songs plus a tango by Russian-born violist/composer Ljova. With credits and credentials like that, they hardly need a career boost, but this hypnotically beautiful, stunningly imaginative cross-pollinating work is exactly that. The album’s central theme could be summed up somewhat reductionistically as circularity: this is a collection of new commissioned pieces based on elements that return and echo with a deliberately hypnotic effect, tonally, rhythmically and volume-wise. The concept goes back as far as humanity does, expanding over the centuries and when Debussy discovered Javanese gamelan music, that was the quantum leap, in terms of western classical music at least. The genius of this album is simply picking up where Debussy left off.
Smartly, Brooklyn Rider make Debussy’s lone string quartet the centerpiece here rather than the opening or concluding track, setting it in context with the new works around it. It’s amazing how new and fresh it sounds, delivered with particular percussive verve, nudging the listener to tune in to ideas resonating elsewhere here – unison passages, echoes of Russian and Asian tonalities in the first movement, the swirling repetition of the second and gamelanesque allusions in the last one. There are also motifs that have insinuated themselves into rock music over the years: listen closely and you’ll find them!
Ensemble member and violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Achille’s Heel (Debussy’s birth name was Achille-Claude) displays a strong Kayhan Kalhor influence, and no wonder, considering how closely the group has worked with the Iranian compose (their 2008 collaboration Silent City is a high water mark in East/West mashups). The theme insinuates itself quietly, growing more intense with a Kalhoresque insistence alternated with pizzicato passages leading to an absolutely haunting figure where one of the violins pedals a funereal, bell-like tone before the striking contrast of the most rock-oriented passage on the entire album. Jacobsen’s cantabile astringency in the third movement casually sets the stage for the fiery riffage of the final, counterintuitively ending much as it began.
Shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki solos with the group on his composition, (Cycles) What Falls Must Rise, fading up with what sounds like actual studio feedback, the big flute alternating between stillness and rapidfire fifth intervals. A call to alarm sounds distantly over ambient strings and a low, crackling tone that could be a short circuit (amazing how sometimes snafus in the studio translate into the best moments a group could hope for!). It ends with a good ambient jape whose ending deseves not to be spoiled here. The first of the two other tracks here is a tone poem, extended, apprehensive stillness punctuated by ambient effects, by another one of the group’s Silk Road cohorts, Uzbek composer Dmitry Yanov-Yanovsky. The other makes a fullscale rondo out of the John Cage composition In a Landscape, Justin Messina’s artful electronic loops sealing the deal as what’s essentially a blues lick runs over and over again, its permutations finally fading out gracefully. Brooklyn Rider are currently on tour: their cd release show is on March 15 at 7:30 PM at the Angel Oresanz Center. Adventurous listeners would be crazy to miss it – advance tix are available here.
Their most adventurous album. For ten years, the Silk Road Ensemble has been bringing some of the most fascinating, intense and pioneering Asian and Asian-inflected music to western audiences. On their latest cd, an all-star cast of some of the most imaginative players on the planet – literally – take a flying leap into a rich, cutting-edge program of cross-pollination with equal parts gusto and finesse. For one reason or another, it’s arguably the least Asian of the Silk Road albums, and also the most demanding – while some of the compositions here are among the most accessible the ensemble has recorded, others are far from that – but a close listen pays tremendous rewards.
The cd opens with a three-part suite by the reliably multistylistic Gabriela Lena Frank (who just won a Latin Grammy!), titled Ritmos Anchinos. The opening piece, as Frank puts it, has Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man discovering her inner latina. The second is a blissful little dance inspired by a Chinese-African village in Peru; the third hitches a raw, clattering, rhythmically tricky, reverb-driven pipa piece to a second part where the pipa takes on some particularly imaginative jazz guitar voicings.
Hong Kong-born composer Angel Lam’s phantasmagorical, shapeshifting Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain follows, building to a dark, dramatic crescendo following a sparse buildup in the Asian scale, Kojiro Umezaki’s rustic shakuhachi flute bringing back a rain-drenched, ambient feel. The second part is a mysterious narrative of the events of the first part, sweeping along uneasily on the wings of the strings.
Evan Ziporyn’s compositions draw deeply on his gamelan work, and his trio suite here, Sulvasutra is no exception. Based on an ancient treatise on the proper proportions for Hindu altars, there’s a definite symmetry here, circular, echoey and insistent, the extraordinary string quartet Brooklyn Rider interpolating atmospherics within tabla player Sandeep Das’ hypnotic rhythms. The second part sounds like what another adventurous string composer, Ljova Zhurbin, might have done with a gamelan, adding a raw Carpathian edge to the pointillistic ambience; Wu Man reappears deviously in the concluding segment, taking the piece rousingly back to Fiji.
The concluding suite – if you can call it one – is the album’s star attraction, the latest from Osvaldo Golijov, alternatingly rousing, joyous, raptly hypnotic and haunting. On the slinky, seductive first section, the Argentinian avant garde luminary proves himself adept and frankly exhilarating (if not exactly innovative) at lush Mohammed Abdel Wahab-style levantine orchestration. The still, brooding, mystical tone poems that follow fall in stark contrast with the ecstatic, defiant Sardinian protest song that fades up and blasts along like the Pogues, Galician bagpipe star Cristina Pato fueling the blaze. And then it’s over. It’s out now on World Village Music and it makes a particularly suitable holiday gift for the cutting-edge listener on y0ur list.
Remember this name: Mavrothi Kontanis. You heard it here first. In a remarkably ambitious and even more remarkably successful display of musicianship, scholarship and archivism, oud virtuoso Kontanis is simultaneously releasing two brilliant albums of Greek songs, with a cd release show at Alwan for the Arts this Friday, June 13 at 9. The first, Sto Kafesli Sokaki is an alternately haunting and rousing collection of Greek, Turkish and Cypriot songs from the 1920s and 30s influenced by the influx of refugees from Turkey who brought their slinky shakecharmer music with them in the years after World War I. The second, the ironically titled Wooden Heart also includes a mix of sensationally good, vintage obscurities along with several equally superb original songs. While Kontanis’ core audience will obviously be those who speak the Greek and Turkish of the lyrics on these two cds, any adventurous listener, anywhere in the world will find each of them an irresistible melodic feast. It’s impossible to imagine anyone hearing one of these albums without wanting the other.
As a player, Kontanis has sensational chops: he’s in the same league as Simon Shaheen, but more terse, less inclined to wild excursions than meticulously plotted conspiracies among the notes. More often than not, he leaves it to the band to embellish the melodies, especially violinist Megan Gould, who serves as lead instrumentalist for the most part here since many of the songs on Sto Kafesli Sokaki are basically a duo between her and Kontanis. Clarinetist Lefteris Bournias – whose breathtaking, lightning-fast solo on Arapina, from the first cd shows off his scorching chops – with politiki lyra player Phaedon Sinis and somewhat ubiquitous percussionist Timothy Quigley (who propels the delightfully fun Chicha Libre) round out the cast.
Disabuse yourself of any preconceptions you may have about Greek music: this isn’t what you’d typically hear in your average taverna in Astoria on a Saturday night. Rather, it harkens back to the era just before the psychedelic, hash-smoking, politically charged music known as rebetika emerged in the Greek resistance underground in the late 20s and 30s. Both the originals and the covers on these two albums blend the hypnotic ambience of Levantine dance music with the often savage chromaticism of Turkish and gypsy music, set to a tricky, circular Mediterranean beat. Most of it is dark and pensive: highlights of the first cd include the viscerally anguished Armenita as well as Etsli Marika Dhehome, featuring a pointillistically incisive solo from Anastassia Zachariadou on kanun (a sort of Mediterranean zither, similar to the cimbalom, played with mallets to produce a pinging, staccato sound, like an amplified harpsichord but with more reverb). Ouzo is a deliberately maudlin number, Kontanis’ amusingly over-the-top vocal rendition of the narrator’s beer goggles (or, in this case, ouzo goggles) making them obvious even to non-Greek speakers.
Wooden Heart (referring to what an oud is made of) is where Kontanis’ heart is, an equal display of soul and chops. The opening cut, Wooden Kite soars and crescendoes imaginatively; Kontanis opens the shape-shifting, violin-fueled original Nikriz Longa with a thoughtful, incisive taksim (solo improvisation) as he does onstage with most of his material, including the following instrumental Ushak Saz Semal.
To Kontanis’ immense credit (at least to Western ears), it’s next to impossible to distinguish his originals from the archival gems on these albums (where he found them is anyone’s guess – and probably the equivalent of a doctorate worth of digging). For fans of great bands like Magges, Luminescent Orchestrii and the aforementioned Simon Shaheen’s older work, as well as anyone caught up in the gypsy music craze, both these cds are must-owns. What the Silk Road Ensemble was to the early zeros, Kontanis is to the later part of this decade, a master of many styles but most of all his own, for that reason one of the most exciting new artists to come around in the last several years.