Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Alexandra Joan Stuns and Surprises at WMP Concert Hall

There are innumerable cookie-cutter classical pianists out there. They do as their teachers tell them and play it safe. Most of the time, they succeed with what’s put before them, since the composers they play knew how to enable just about anyone with sufficient chops to get the job done, more or less. Then at the other extreme there are players who say, “To hell with dynamics, this is MY interpretation, my way or the highway!” Alexandra Joan is neither, and she doesn’t fit the middle ground either. What she does is distinctive, and stunningly intuitive, as her solo program Wednesday night at WMP Concert Hall so vividly reaffirmed. Joan is not only a musician, she’s also a scenemaker. Her ongoing Kaleidoscope Series – this season’s final concert is June 1 – brings together music, and sometimes art, and people, a diverse mix much younger than the typical Lincoln Center crowd. If this is one of classical music’s many possible futures, it’s something to look forward to.

This program’s theme was music by French composers, “Unconventional ways to feel or convey French culture,” Joan explained (she’s Romanian-French; she lives here). Focusing on the auspicious moment where Romanticism was busting out of its cocoon into Modernism, she opened with Faure’s Theme and Variations in C Sharp Minor, Op. 73. It’s a lot harder to play than it sounds, especially as the rather poignant, cantabile theme expands. Joan let its glittering moodiness speak for itself: the theme itself draws a straight line all the way back to Haydn, and she let that history resound, particularly throughout the expansive passage of high/low contrasts about three-quarters of the way in.

Enesco’s Sonata in F Sharp Minor, Op. 24, No. 1 was a showstopper, and an eye-opener. Joan is a leading advocate for the late Romantic composer who shares her heritage, “A visionary,” as she put it. Playing from memory, she took on its tense astringencies and restless unwillingness to resolve as if they were her own. In the repetitive, bruised pulse of the lefthand attack in the opening allegro, the twisted, staccato dance that builds to a galloping intensity in the second, presto movement and the walk through Monet’s back garden in the final andante, she gave it an otherworldly gravitas worthy of Debussy. The crowd was stunned.

The waves of intensity, if not the intellectual rigor, lifted for a minute with a handful of miniatures by Mohammed Fairouz, who was in attendance. Still relatively young (he’s in his twenties) and amazingly prolific, Fairouz is a wide-ranging thinker with several considerably powerful, unselfconsciously deep works to his credit – and he can also be very funny. Joan assembled a set that was both amusing and captivating: an attempt to make an etude interesting, in a very successful, Schumann-esque way; a challenge to write a piece containing no dissonances (it was mostly arpeggios); a joke that began way up the scale and ended way down; an austere twelve-tone piece and a brief, vividly autumnal requiem.

She closed the concert with Ravel’s rippling Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, written as a homage to Schubert, explaining that the wit and diversity of these pieces would make a good segue with Fairouz, and she was right. The suite is emotionally diverse, from balminess to poignancy to turbulence, with a comfortable sense of resolution missing from the rest of the program, a rather triumphant way to wrap up the concert. The audience wouldn’t let her go without an encore, so she treated them to a sparkling, bustling excerpt from Ravel’s Ondine.

Also worth a mention is Raphael Haik’s witty, pun-laden photo exhibit held in tandem with the concert. Toddlers in a fierce wrestle portrayed as “speed dating;” an airhead Eiffel Tower; park chairs arranged in several clever configurations, and an enigmatically bemused traveler who just missed his commuter train  delivered quietly provocative questions and plenty of laughs.

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series concludes its 2011 spring season at WMP Concert Hall, 31 W 28th St. on June 1 at 7:30 PM with a diverse program that includes both original works and improvisations, featuring jazz guitar virtuoso Peter Mazza, saxophonist Timothy Hayward and bassist Thomson Kneeland.

May 2, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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