Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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for optimism and the eventual triumph of complete syncretism, but reminded that effort and willingness to abandon outdated preconceptions would be necessary to cement the paradigm shift.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.

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

Michel Reis’ Point of No Return Captures the Zeitgeist

Luxembourg-born pianist Michel Reis’ Point of No Return is a stunningly vivid, darkly powerful album, easily one of the two or three best to come over the transom here so far this year. This is not an album of blazing solos or gratuitous displays of chops, yet it conveys an intensity of emotion rarely reached via any approach, whether loud or quiet. The word “haunting” is often misused, but not here. Reis wanders judiciously through minor keys for an austere, rain-drenched, frequently cinematic ambience, leaving plenty of space for the ghosts to wander. Some of this reminds of Fernando Otero in a more restrained, contemplative moment, or Dave Brubeck circa Brandenburg Gate Revisited.

There are so many “OMG, that was good” moments here that it doesn’t make sense to list them all – or ruin the suspense. If you think that a bass solo can’t be plaintive or deliver an impact, let bassist Tal Gamlieli’s cautious, pause-laden one on the sad, plaintive, simply titled Folk Song hit you – it’s what he doesn’t say that resonates most intensely. When Vivek Patel’s flugelhorn and Aaron Kruziki’s soprano sax shadow each other on the austerely catchy opening track, The Power of Beauty, the effect is much the same. As is Patel’s tentative reach and then decision against a flight upwards coming out of Reis’ incisively hammering chords on the bossa-flavored It’s Only Been a Dream. The cinematic Riverside Drive paints a vivid noir tableau, Reis’ uneasy piano flutter matched by Adam Cruz’ drums as the menace rises and then recedes, leaving the calm cityscape ominously unchanged. And The Sad Clown, a darkly carnivalesque song without words, wouldn’t be out of place on Frank Carlberg’s creepily theatrical Tivoli Trio album.

Not everything here is as dark. Sailing Away at Night is an irresistibly fun narrative, moving out into the depths where the waves are calm and the air is still, but then, uh oh, here come the raindrops! Time to head back to port! The title track works off a rippling, circular hook that threatens to head off into Yellowjackets territory but doesn’t, thanks to a scowling bridge and an exchange of fisticuffs between the piano and drums. There’s also a diptych of sorts, Street of Memories followed by Leaning in Towards Tomorrow, that juxtaposes comfortable, distantly blues-pop tv-theme phrases with hints of the otherworldly – clearly, even those safe streets are not without their ghosts. Reis plays the cd release show for this one on April 6 at 7:30 PM at Miles Cafe.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nicholas Urie’s Big Band Album Explores the Brilliance of Bukowski

Charles Bukowski liked Beethoven, maybe because he recognized a fellow drunken genius, maybe because Beethoven is great drinking music. Would Bukowski have appreciated Nicholas Urie’s new Bukowski-themed big band album, My Garden? Maybe. Urie’s intent here is to honor Bukowski’s legacy by elevating him above his popular image as the poet laureate of fratboy excess. A good guess is that the frequently astringent third-stream atmospherics would have grabbed him, not to mention that all but one of the tracks here illustrates a poem or a Bukowski quote. And the one that doesn’t is ironically right up his alley, booze-wise: “Drinking beer doesn’t make you fat. It makes you lean: against bars, tables, chairs and poles.” Its main character aside, this is a fascinating modern big band album with some delicious charts, clever and even psychedelic production and an A-list of jazz talent, most of them from the New York area.

If you can get past – or don’t mind, or even enjoy – Bukowski’s gimlet-eyed perspective, he was an amazing observer. It’s hard to find someone who can distill an idea to its essence like he could, and usually did. Urie knows this, and takes his cues from there. As much as the arrangements here are lush and rich, there are no wasted notes: the band’s focus is intense. The brief opening track, Winter: 44th Year sees Bukowski feeling suicidal, knife in hand, drunk-dialing some woman and getting her answering service (this was in the days before voicemail), brought to life with moody, swirling atmospherics. Round and Round – the simple phrase “you have my soul and I have your money” – makes an uncharacteristically roundabout way to explain away a dayjob, and the music perfectly captures this, the band’s circular chromatics leading to a careful, soberly disdainful Rhodes solo from Frank Carlberg, up to impatiently circling Kenny Pexton tenor sax and then a labyrinth of vocal overdubs from Christine Correa. John Carlson’s ominous solo trumpet kicks off the title track – “pain is flowers blooming all the time,” vivid rainy day ambience walking steadily with the trumpet and then Alan Ferber’s trombone lifting the downcast atmosphere a bit with wryly bluesy tints as the band swells behind him.

A very cleverly disguised ballad, Weeping Women illustrates Bukowski’s claim that he would have offered women more solace if they hadn’t been so high-maintenance. Awash in shifting segments, Carlson, Douglas Yates on alto and Jeremy Udden on soprano sax alternate voices in a conversation, less weepy than brooding and somewhat conspiratorial. A predictably shrill crescendo is followed by a laugh-out-loud disappointed ending: Bukowski would have liked this! Another circular number, Lioness – “There’s a lioness in the hallway: put on your lion’s mask and wait” is vigorous fun, driven by Carlberg’s unbridled, staccato piano. The arguably strongest track here is Slaughterhouse – “I live in the slaughterhouse and am ill with thriving” –  a feast of tectonic shifts and high/low contrasts, Udden’s soprano sax against Max Siegel’s bass trombone, with a bit of a round and a neat soprano/alto conversation over just the rhythm section. The last track, Finality, illustrates a rather nihilistic portrayal of a crazy Ezra Pound repudiating his life’s work, a moment that ostensibly comes to all of us. Pexton’s tenor rises gravely against Carlberg’s judicious, acidic chords, then Carlson’s trumpet blazes while Rome burns in the distance. The one bit of a letdown here is the number about beer not making you fat, which Correa sings like a wine drinker – or your mother – against the rhythmically tricky playfulness of the chart which then goes completely off the charts when the booze kicks in. Sober, it’s a great album – how does it sound after a few drinks? That’s a question that deserves an answer!

March 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 8/17/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #896:

Krzysztof Komeda – Nighttime, Daytime Requiem

Polish jazz pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda is best known for the soundtrack to the film Rosemary’s Baby. A favorite of Roman Polanski, he’d previously made a mark for his score for Knife in the Water. This album is a 1998 reissue of a 1967 sesssion for Polish radio featuring Komeda on piano along with Tomasz Stanko (whose own albums of Komeda works are worth seeking out) on trumpet, Zbigniew Namyslowski on alto sax, Roman Dylag on bass and Rune Carlsson on drums. Originally issued as part of a four-album box set in 1974 by Komeda’s widow Zofia, original copies sell for thousands of dollars on the collector’s market. Komeda used late 50s Miles Davis as a stepping-off point, adding his own brooding, sepulchral shades and the result is some of the most haunting jazz ever written (with its frequent classical overtones, many consider this third stream). This album includes the complete, 27-minute Daytime, Nighttime Requiem (a Coltrane eulogy) along with the somewhat more lighthearted Don Quixote, the austere, menacing atmospherics of The Witch and the lyrical Ballad for Bernt (from Knife in the Water). Also noteworthy, in fact sonically superior, is the 2009 Requiem album by the Komeda Project of pianist Andrzej Winnicki and powerhouse saxophonist Krzysztof Medyna which includes both the Requiem as well as possibly Komeda’s most macabre composition, Dirge for Europe. Komeda’s most famous album, Astigmatic and his more terse, upbeat, vamp-oriented Crazy Girl are also very much worth seeking out. Komeda died in 1969 under very mysterious circumstances from what could euphemistically be called blunt trauma to the head. Critically injured, he somehow managed to board a plane (or was put on a plane) from the US back to Poland, where he succumbed just a few weeks later, reportedly without medical attention. Here’s a torrent of a whole bunch of stuff of his.

August 17, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Luciano Troja Rediscovers an Important Jazz Composer

This is the kind of album we love best: a rediscovery, a new appreciation of someone who may have slipped under the radar. Sicilian pianist Luciano Troja learned of Earl Zindars (1927-2005) through Bill Evans, who popularized Zindars’ best-known composition, How My Heart Sings, as well as recording and playing many of the Chicago-based composer’s works throughout his career. Troja credits Zindars with being one of the pioneers of using multiple time signatures (in this case, 3/4 and 4/4) in the same piece, something of an overstatement: jazz groups were doing it decades before Dave Brubeck popularized the device. But Zindars has been long overdue for a rediscovery: he was third stream before the term existed. Like Brubeck, he blended impressionistic, sometimes brooding Romantic themes with jazz, utilizing strikingly imagistic melodies that sometimes took on a cinematic sweep. Also recognized within the classical world, his works for orchestra and brass were frequently performed during his lifetime. Troja’s new cd At Home with Zindars isn’t the first Zindars album – pianist Bill Cunliffe did one in 2003 with a sextet, and Zindars himself produced a couple for pianist Don Haas and his trio – but it’s probably the best (Zindars rarely recorded professionally, and it doesn’t appear that he ever released an album of his own). Troja plays solo, with an understatedly cantabile glimmer closely attuned to the nuance and warm emotional immediacy of Zindars’ music. It’s an album of subtleties: as a plus, many of the compositions here have never been previously released.

Many of these songs – and they are songs in the purest sense of the word – are miniatures, possibly designed to offer a comfortable melodic framework for extended improvisation. The casually swinging, Romantically tinged ballad Mother of Earl that opens the album sets the tone for most of the rest of what’s here. The simply titled Nice Place grows majestically out of a memorably Chopinesque architecture; Silverado Trail builds from minimalistic echoes of Debussy to a vivid blue-sky theme. The memorably moody, modally-tinged My Love Is an April Song is the darkest and most overtly jazz-oriented of all the tracks here, followed closely by the wary, apprehensive vignette I Always Think of You. Several others lean in the opposite direction toward pop, most successfully on the blues-infused Four Times Round, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Harold Arlen catalog. Troja’s version of How My Heart Sings gets a rubato treatment that reaches more avidly for the emotional brass ring here than anything else here; Troja’s lone composition here, Earl and Bill so perfectly captures Zindars’ trademark classical/blues blend that it could be Zindars himself. The album closes with its strongest and most intense track, Roses for Annig, which Zindars wrote for his wife shortly before his death. A couple of tracks here lean toward Windham Hill blandness and could have been left out, but all in all, this is an important achievement and a treat for fans of the genial, evocative style that Zindars – and Troja – so successfully mine. The album comes with a very informative, illustrated 44-page booklet in both English and Italian.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bobby Avey Makes an Auspicious Debut

Pianist Bobby Avey’s debut album A New Face instantly elevates him into the ranks of formidable 21st century players like Vijay Iyer, Gerald Clayton, and Marc Cary. Intense, forceful and fearless, Avey has a powerful lefthand like Kenny Barron, a fondness for ominous modal excursions and a vivid sense of melody that hovers between the noir, the Romantics and Olivier Messiaen at his most otherworldly. Along with the other members of his trio, bassist Thomson Kneeland and drummer Jordan Pearlson, this album features the always estimable Dave Liebman guesting on soprano and tenor sax on four tracks. The chemistry between players matches the quality of the compositions: if there’s been a better jazz debut album this year, we haven’t heard it.

The opening track, Late November begins with a machine-gun circular motif that Avey eventually leaves to the bass and drums and hovers over with a noirish glimmer – and then takes it down to a minefield of modal incisions on the third verse. Much of this album has a bracing third-stream feel and this is a prime example. Meanwhile, throughout most of the song, Pearlson and Kneeland lock in and hammer with Avey, something they do with considerable relish throughout the album. The second cut, In Retreat is a potently evocative, bitter, brooding ballad, Liebman adding understated grey tones over Avey’s richly melodic crescendos, agitated but completely in control. Kneeland takes it out into the depths with a woundedly syncopated solo. Delusion is a study in understated chromatics and rhythmic shifts, another Kneeland solo early on its quiet highlight. The title track kicks off with a tense, macabre-tinged bass solo which Avey expands eerily – it’s a Sam Fuller film played out in the churchyard at Saint-Sulpice, Liebman playing the role of semi-friendly ghost.

After the stalker intro of Less is Less Than Half, the drums prowl around Avey’s minimalism, building to a crashing McCoy Tyner style lefthand hook that winds up in a hammering, fiery, percussive blaze. By contrast, Influence, a duo piece for piano and tenor, shifts between a golden age late 50s vibe and an uneasily unwinding, ripplingly horizontal piano soundscape. The final cuts here reach genuinely majestic heights. Insight unfolds with Avey hammering on an insistent staccato pedal note, expands to a chromatic vamp that he roams around, eventually a marvelously terse chromatic bass solo, and then it all comes together, glimmering and intense. Likewise, Time Unfolding finally throws restraint to the wind after giving Liebman the chance to rove expansively and then finally plunge into the rhythm section’s staccato syncopation before Avey and then Pearlson take it all the way up. Avey’s ceiling is pretty much as high as he want to go with it. Hope you like traveling, dude.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment