Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Intriguing Solo Piano Albums from Chris Donnelly and Bruce Levingston

It’s always risky to impute motives to art. What an audience might perceive as tragedy might actually be a portrayal of triumph…or vice versa. Misunderstandings like that are seldom so drastic or cut-and-dried. Is it possible that pianist Chris Donnelly’s new solo composition Metamorphosis ultimately portrays death by schlock, or by capitalism? Maybe. Whatever the case, it’s a pleasantly unpredictable, graceful ride. What’s known is that it’s based on Metamorphose, the classic M.C. Escher woodcut. What’s most impressive about the music is that it’s consistently interesting, since about 80% of the Escher work is the artist’s signature fish and birds morphing into each other, two-to-three-dimensional-and-back-again, trippy but utterly monotonous. Which is deliberate: with Metamorphose, Escher was attempting nothing less than a history of life on earth. Finally, as his endless succession of evolutionary leaps and dives approaches the edge of the canvas, a flock of predatory birds becomes a housing tract, followed by a city and at its edge, across a bridge, a solitary tower. Which is part of a chess game – and a checkmate scenario. The chessboard itself quickly fades into the protozoa that first appeared at the woodcut’s opposite edge. It’s not the most optimistic view of the future of humankind.

Donnelly starts out with an aptly simple, recurrent hook but quickly builds to a warm Neoromanticism occasionally spiced with a bluesy allusion or two and a little syncopation to deviate from the steady, four-on-the-floor rhythm and precise, attractively rippling melody that frequently evokes Robert Schumann. Most of the ten movements segue into each other, with only four full stops. As it goes on, Donnelly introduces a fugue and finally some staggered rhythm and atonalities, and a two-chord vamp that hints at the blues (and the Beatles). As the city begins to loom beneath the flock of birds, there’s a bit of jazz, which is worth the wait, giving Donnelly a welcome chance to let his righthand sail off with some long, expansively fluid upper-register passages.

But to be true to Escher, this bliss doesn’t last. It would be a plot spoiler to give away exactly how Donnelly gets back to the protozoa, but that’s where it all ends. Hint: a familiar theme or two are involved.

And speaking of Schumann, guess what came over the transom the other day: Heart Shadow, a brand-new recording of Schumann’s Kreisleriana along with excellent new works by Lisa Bielawa and Charles Wuorinen, recorded by pianist Bruce Levingston. Kreisleriana is part of the standard repertoire: its wry, playful, understated ironies and warm melodicism will be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up with classical radio. For those unfamilar with the piece, it’s a seven-part suite inspired by a E.T.A. Hoffmann satire about an eccentric intellectual and his cat, both of whom simultaneously decide to write an autobiography. Of course, the man doesn’t know what the cat is up to: as you would expect, his furry friend is the hero of all this. This is not a high-octane performance, but an emotionally intuitive, dynamically charged one: in its quieter moments, Levingston caresses the keys, letting the composer’s subtle humor speak for itself.

The piece that really stands out here is Bielawa’s Elegy-Portrait, a tribute to singer Alexandra Montano,who shared a friendship as well as time onstage with both Bielawa and Levingston. It’s a portrait of someone who seems to have been both puckish and profound. As it unwinds, Levingston works poignant upper register accents while his left hand plumbs the depths, followed by a long, otherworldly glimmering, minimalist passage with exchanges of dynamics that grow hypnotic and insistent and eventually, inevitably fade down to just a heartbeat. And then all of a sudden it’s over. The Wuorinen work – the album’s title track- makes an apt segue, with a similarly spacious, methodical pacing, wary tonalities and utter lack of resolution. Levingston plays it with quiet confidence. For both performer and audience, the album offers the opportunity to creatively and memorably revisit some old friends.

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September 10, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 2/27/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #702:

Steve Nieve – Playboy

This is a hard one to find. Originally issued on vinyl in 1987 and out of print since not much later, Elvis Costello’s keyboardist’s second solo album is a characteristically droll, witty, sometimes hypnotic series of miniatures. Nieve likes to improvise silent film scores, and his originals here, including Pictures From A Confiscated Camera, A Walk In Monet’s Back Garden, the 9.4 Rag and Once Upon A Time In South America share a cinematic feel. He quotes liberally from Debussy, Morricone, Satie, Chopin and probably dozens of others, then covers the Specials’ Ghost Town with the same matter-of-fact, deadpan intensity as his genuinely moving version of Bowie’s Life on Mars. He finds the plaintiveness inside George Michael’s Careless Whisper and turns White Girl by X (dedicated to Exene’s dead sister Mirielle Cervenka) into a downcast mood piece. An extensive search didn’t turn up any torrents: we’d upload our own except that ours is the vinyl version. If we find a digital one, we’ll give you a link.

February 27, 2011 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fred Hersch: Good to Be Alive at the Vanguard

This is one of those rare albums that will appeal to casual listeners just as much as headphone wearers seeking something more cerebral or emotionally impactful. In a lot of ways, it’s a good-to-be-alive album. A couple of years ago, no one knew whether or not iconic pianist Fred Hersch would be around to make this, considering how few people have survived a two-month coma, much less returned to their old selves afterward. But that’s what Hersch did, even after having had to relearn his instrument. His new album, Alone at the Vanguard is oldschool, being the entire final set of the final night, December 5, 2010 of his solo stand at that jazz mecca. Surprisingly, it was Hersch, not Ellington or McCoy Tyner or even Brad Mehldau who was the first pianist to get a solo weeklong gig there. Hersch brags that he was “in the zone” for this set, which is an understatement, and after all he’s been through, he deserves to blow his own horn a little. Hersch can do many things well: here he features a richly chordal, third-stream attack, late Romantic emotional intelligence through the randomizing prism of jazz.

In the Wee Small Hours of Morning, which opens the album, ripples with that chordal attack and a long, fascinating series of lefthand/righthand tradeoffs, starlit ambience shifting to a relaxed, wee-hours vibe. The jaunty Down Home, dedicated to Bill Frisell, has a sly Donald Fagen feel and includes a devious Wizard of Oz quote (no, it’s not Somewhere over the Rainbow). The most memorable track here, Echoes, builds from a hypnotic kaleidoscope of noirisms to expressive cascades and a vividly vigorous overture of sorts: of all the songs here (and they are songs in the purest sense of the word), this is the most solidly upbeat, less defiant than simply enjoying the moment. Likewise, Pastorale (a Schumann homage) crescendos with an almost baroque, fugal architecture – the conversation goes back and forth between the hands and never gets tiresome.

Lee’s Dream has a surprisingly sprightly, ragtime-ish elegance, something of a surprise for a song dedicated to Lee Konitz, legend of cool jazz. Jacob de Bandolim’s Doce de Coco slowly and fascinatingly evinces a bossa bounce and hints of the blues from the Brazilian composer’s matter-of-factly fluid lines. Eubie Blake’s Memories of You gets a steely, often clenched-teeth intensity that winds down with a bitter grace; Hersch closes on a balmy, bluesy note with Sonny Rollins’ Doxy (to appreciate the warmth of this take on it, you ought to hear Jon Irabagon’s relentlessly assaultive version on his Foxy album). Fred Hersch will be at the Jazz Standard March 2-6 with a typically first-class cast of characters including guitarist Julian Lage and tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger,who’s rightfully riding a big wave of buzz at the moment.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kathleen Supové’s Piano Threatens to Explode

A titan of the new music community, Kathleen Supové has been a go-to pianist for important, innovative composers since the 80s. Her latest album The Exploding Piano – her first since 2004’s stunningly virtuosic Infusion – is characteristically eclectic and cerebral. Where much of Infusion weaves a dizzying lattice of textures, this one – except for the final, practically 25-minute cut – is more direct and more of a showcase for Supové’s legendary chops. Except for that final cut, the electronics here are pretty much limited to lightly processed sound and the occasional loop.

Missy Mazzoli’s Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos is the opening track, replete with Mazzoli’s signature traits: terse, richly interlocking melodies, counterrythms, and hypnotically circular motifs. It’s a tribute to the great adventurer, imagining her riding across her adopted Sahara Desert on horseback, reflecting on the comfort of her early life inVienna high society as bits and pieces of Schubert’s A Major Sonata float to the surface. And then the melody spreads away from the tonic, insistent forte chords create a Radiohead-inflected swirl against a repetitive loop, and the flood that will kill her at age 27 is upon her. It’s as poignant as it is intense.

Michael Gatonska’s A Shaking of the Pumpkin is meant to illustrate activity in the insect kingdom, alternating low rumble with judicious righthand melody and a lot of sustain that finally reaches a roar – and then goes on and on, A Day in the Life style. The placement of a bass drum under the piano lid enhances the boomy sustain of the low tonalities. It ends with a series of muted thumps – a pedal springing back into place? Shots? A salute?

Anna Clyne’s On Track is a launching pad for Supové’s trademark deadpan wit. Inspired by a spoken-word quote from Queen Elizabeth about how quickly circumstances change (which recurs as a sample here), it walks resolutely until the Mission Impossible theme appears for an instant, insistently in the left hand. Eventually Mission Impossible will casually interrupt the busy, rippling melody again and again until it finally shuts it off cold. Dan Becker’s circular Revolution illustrates a Martin Luther King speech (sampled here) using the story of Rip Van Winkle as a parable for how America is sleeping through a revolution. It’s a duet between Supové and a prepared Disklavier (a sort of digital player piano with strings modified to produce what amounts to a percussion track here). After running a series of widening circles, Supové finally breaks free of the rhythmic stranglehold – a hint, it seems – and then lets the melody fall away gracefully as it winds down to just a few repetitive, increasingly simple chords.

Supové’s husband Randall Woolf’s intense, bristling, bluesily magisterial suite Adrenaline Revival was the highlight of Infusion. Here, he’s represented by Sutra Sutra, a long work punctuated by many spoken word passages which reach to string theory as an explanation for both life and matter: as expressed here, vibration is everything (which for a musician it pretty much is). But in less than a couple of minutes, the genuine plaintiveness of the melody is subsumed by all the psychedelic effects and a whispery crash course in subatomic physics. It would be a treat to hear just the piano all the way through. Supove has been busy this year – her performance at the new music series at Brooklyn’s First Presbyterian Church was a 2010 highlight – and her Music with a View series coming next spring at the Flea Theatre is always chock-full of surprises.

December 6, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment