Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bayeté's World


In 1974, Santana released a sprawling live album, Lotus, recorded in Japan and only available there. Somewhere near the middle of the three album set was a song called Free Angela, credited to Bayeté. The Angela of the title was of course Angela Davis, the civil rights activist who had spent time in jail on murder charges in 1972. Several songs were written about her, including Sweet Black Angel by the Rolling Stones, and Angela by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Now, by the time Santana put out Lotus, Davis had been out of jail for over a year, but a good groove is a good groove and the tune was tailor-made for the guitar and rhythm pyrotechnics of Carlos and crew.

By the time Lotus became more widely available, it's likely few people knew who Bayeté was or where Free Angela had come from. Turns out Bayeté was a name adopted by the pianist Todd Cochran and Free Angela was on his debut album as a leader, Worlds Around The Sun, which came out in 1972. Cochran only made one other album, but even a busy career as a sideman in the worlds of jazz, fusion, rock - he's on Peter Gabriel's first album - and r&b (not to mention being sampled by De La Soul, etc.) failed to keep him prominent enough to maintain Worlds Around The Sun in the catalog. Now thanks to Omnivore Recordings, we have the first CD reissue and can hear the original Free Angela in context.

1972 was the same Bobby Hutcherson's Head On came out. An expansive classic with touches of fusion and Latin jazz, much of the album was written and arranged by Cochran, then a 19-year old phenom. Hutcherson returned the favor and his sparkling vibes are all over Bayeté's record but never overshadowing Cochran himself. It Ain't, the first track on Worlds Around The Sun, showcases his arranging, with a sweet, swinging woodwind intro reminiscent of Eric Dolphy or Charles Mingus. It also serves to introduce some of the players, moving through muscular solos from Cochran, bassist James Leary and drummer Thabo Vincar. Somewhat strangely for a jazz cut, the song fades out as the theme is being reintroduced, lending a sense of impatience: let's get on with it.

And so they do, with the radically different sound of a funky backbeat, wah-wah driven clavinet and a few choruses of "Free Angela!" For anyone interested in the early days of fusion, it's an intoxicating sound and over all too soon. About two thirds of the way through, the funk recedes and is replaced by a lyrical clavinet riff, quickly superseded by a wistful arrangement led by flutes and wordless vocals. It's a bit of a patchwork affair, but also quietly impressive when you consider the protean young mind behind it all. Njeir follows, coming in softly on vibes, piano and wind instruments. There's beautiful playing by Hadley Caliman (another figure worthy of investigation) on flute, Cochran and Hutcherson. It's questing music, melancholy but also lighter than air.

I'm On It brings the funk back, with crisp drumming, more wah wah and some group vocals. Caliman shines again with a knotty free jazz blast from his tenor sax, but at under 3:00, it's also over all too soon. One could begin to wonder if the classically-trained Cochran was slightly ambivalent about the inherently repetitive nature of groove-based music. It's easy to contrast it with Herbie Hancock's astonishing Sextant from around the same time, where he had no problem filling a whole side of the record with a hard jam called Hornets.

Next up is the true centerpiece of the album, a 12 minute piece called Bayeté, which originally led off side two of Worlds Around The Sun. Over a bed of percussion, Cochran solos on Fender Rhodes at length, exploring the sustained textures of the instrument. Terrific solos from Oscar Brashear (trumpet), Dave Johnson (soprano sax) stretch out the driving track, which is reminiscent of Filles De Kilimanjaro, when Miles Davis was on the cusp of going fully electric. It has much of the same excitement and is worth the price of admission.

Eurus slows things down with some questing winds and exploratory drums. The Rhodes shimmers through it all, creating a sumptuous jazz tone painting. Phoebe is tightly arranged and briskly swinging, Brashear blowing hard, while Leary and Johnson are also given their heads. Cochran is once again on Rhodes, employing a nicely distorted sound and comping with big chords before taking a fleet solo of his own. Good stuff.

The last track is Shine The Knock, another lengthy piece with extended soloing from Cochran and busy rhythm work. His arranging skills keep things interesting with alternating sections and well-deployed contributions from the ensemble. Leary's electric bass is churning, goading everyone on. Brashear dazzles with 16th note runs and loud fanfares, invoking Freddie Hubbard's hard bop. The tempo picks up nearing the 12 minute mark and the urgency feels genuine. Cochrane then brings back the opening theme and moves into a much more satisfying fade than the one on It Ain't.

Though it topped Miles Davis on the Downbeat poll in 1972, Worlds Around The Sun is not an epochal album; it often has the feel of a portfolio: let me show you what I can do. But it is an excellent, engaging listen, one that deserved far better than to become buried treasure for crate diggers. It seemed to herald a major talent and Cochran quickly followed it up later in 1972 with the much more funked-out Seeking Other Beauty, also worthy of reissue. However, that was it for Cochran as a leader and, as successful as he was in the future, it would be hard to be convinced that he lived up to the potential shown on Worlds Around The Sun - although he still has his chopsMuch kudos to Omnivore for bringing the best of Bayeté back into the fold.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Valerie Coleman's Utopia

The history of North American music, at least since the Civil War is rife with tales of talented people of Valerie Coleman's "skin tone" (her words) being turned away from the academy and finding refuge in the worlds of jazz, blues and pop. Coleman, who calls herself "an imagery kind of gal" founded Imani Winds in 1997 to put forth a utopian vision where those worlds are one with western classical music.

Such a thing could be a disaster, but the virtuosity of Coleman and her compatriots in the quintet along with that undefinable concept of taste have made Imani a bright spot on the musical landscape. Their artistic conviction and excellence has brought notice from the Grammys - they were nominated in 2005 - and the legendary Wayne Shorter, who made a collaboration with Imani the centerpiece of his last album, Without A Net.

Last Tuesday, Victoria Bond's Cutting Edge Concerts series opened with a "composer portrait" of Valerie Coleman at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater featuring Imani and a host of other performers. The eight works included four world premieres and one New York premiere, all pieces composed since 2011. We first heard Danza de la Mariposa, a solo flute work played by Nathalie Joachim, ultra-stylish in a salmon dress and high heels. It's a brave player who takes on a piece written for the composer's own instrument but Joachim and her golden flute faced down the many challenges of the piece with aplomb. The butterfly's dance led Coleman to alternate breathy tones with fuller ones, and dense passages with more open textures to make for a distinctive portrait of the beautiful insect.

Next up was another portrait in sound - Lenox Avenue, completed earlier this year for an unusual quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Comprised of four movements with descriptive titles, this was another example of Coleman translating images into sound. The piece was full of the life of the street, not only the music famously played there (Thelonious Monk is referenced in the second movement), but also its denizens, the good and the bad. Listening to Lenox Avenue, it became clear that like many great composers - Shostakovich comes to mind - Coleman has an uncanny understanding of the capabilities of different instruments, alone and in ensemble. The communication between sounds was absorbing and the sounds themselves were beautiful. The performers, all members of the Da Capo Chamber Players, seemed to be enjoying it at least as much as the audience.

Rubispheres followed, with Coleman on flute joined by her Imani colleagues Mariam Adam (clarinet) and Monica Ellis (bassoon). Consistently lively, the short piece was a showcase for Ellis's extraordinary technique. She may be one of the finest bassoon players around, with a supple sound at odds with that instruments ungainly reputation. The trio interacted in a variety of ways, at times jamming like a funk band, at others getting knotted up in thickets of notes as dense as anything coming from Vienna these days.

Before intermission, we heard Afro-Cuban Concerto for Wind Quintet, a work from 2001 in which Coleman transferred all the rhythms associated with that music - the clave, the rhumba, etc. - to the instruments of her group. Originally composed for orchestra, this stripped down version worked just fine. Jeff Scott (horn) and Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe) filled out the group to its full cohort and played flawlessly. Hearing "tribal" beats played on melodic instruments changes their relationship to our bodies, but I can't say I was sitting very still during the performance.

When the house lights went down again, we heard The Dawes Roll, another world premiere and a collaboration with Rochelle Small-Clifford, a soprano and songwriter. Accompanied by Dmitri Dover on piano, Small-Clifford not so much sang the songs as inhabited them, using gestures and facial expressions as effectively as a Kabuki master to bring us into her emotional world. The Dawes Roll was a census used to keep track of African-Americans either owned by Native Americans (think on that for a moment) or sharing their blood, so there were plenty of depths to plumb. While it is hard to imagine someone else singing these remarkable songs with the same commitment, they should be widely performed.

The Da Capo Chamber Players took the stage for the last premiere of the night, Freedman of the Five Civilized Tribes, a natural segue from the song cycle, in subject matter at least. Once again, Coleman's sure hand with orchestration utilized each of the players wonderfully for a rich piece that felt more expansive than its length. Like the other new works played, I'm hoping it's recorded soon so I can get to know it better.

Portraits Of Langston (2008) for flute, clarinet, piano and narrator was the penultimate work, a sort of call and response between poems and music. Tim Cain read the poems and, although he stumbled once, I felt like I understood Langston Hughes's use of repetition in a way that was never clear before. In short, Cain was a fantastic reader, the poems were well-chosen, and the music drew on the sounds of the Harlem Renaissance as an expert collage-maker might use printed materials of an earlier age.

Finally, the Imani Winds gathered once more to play Tzigane, full of energetic melodies and interplay. There was almost constant forward motion from beginning to end in this delightful work, which managed to avoid cliché while still being unmistakably inspired by Eastern European gypsy music. When it ended, there was a long, well-deserved ovation for Coleman and her players.

It had been a long concert and my head was still trying to make sense of all we had heard as we exited onto the rain-slicked streets of the upper west side. The blinking Don't Walk sign formed a pulse under the ostinato of traffic and when a cab stopped on a dime to pick us up I almost applauded. I was still in Coleman's utopia, where the world becomes music and music becomes the world. I hope to visit again soon.

There are still two more events in the Cutting Edge Concerts series, on April 21st and 28th. Go to their site for more information.

 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Das Kraftwerk Quartett


Around 1956, Buddy Holly established the quartet as the basic form of the rock band. In 1962, The Beatles made it de rigeur. On their 1975 tour, after a few years of line-up changes, Kraftwerk presented the rock quartet as an almost purely graphic concept. Granted, they may have actually needed eight hands on deck to play their music back then, but sequencers, computers and other technological advances have made that progressively less necessary. And when you consider the fact that Kraftwerk is now touring with precisely synced 3-D video, it almost makes more sense for them to have one person controlling everything. But they remain wedded to the four-man-band, if only for its visual power - and they are right to do so. The sight of the four podia (Keyboards? Decks? Desks?) precisely aligned on stage has become as iconic as the four heads on the cover of With The Beatles.

Although a longtime fan of Kraftwerk I didn't really get the point of seeing them until I heard Minimum-Maximum, their live album from 2005. The cheers of the crowd activated an energy in the music and the collective joy was apparent even without any visuals. Like all but a lucky few, I was closed out of their run of shows at MOMA a couple of years ago so when they announced a date (later expanded to two) at United Palace Theater I made it my business to get tickets. I was a bit surprised that they chose the elaborate former movie palace on 175th and Broadway as the venue, but the fact is that both concerts I've been to there (Bob Dylan, 2007, and Fleet Foxes, 2011) were highly memorable and I expected no less from Kraftwerk.

The vibe in the buzzing crowd led me to believe that many of the attendees had never been this far uptown before. Even though United Palace is in my backyard as an Inwood dweller, the pioneering spirit lent a frisson that was contagious. I was psyched and so was everyone there. Even though only one original member remains (Ralf Hutter) and Kraftwerk hasn't released anything new since 2003, this didn't feel like an excursion into nostalgia any more than going to Shakespeare play or a seeing a Picasso exhibit. Kraftwerk is simply one of the most influential forces in pop since Edison waxed the first cylinder and this was an opportunity to commune with their timeless music in circumstances fully within their control.

Finally, the lights went down and the red curtain parted to reveal the screen. The four members took their places and the introduction to The Robots began to a unanimous roar from the audience. The familiar figures of the band in red shirts and black ties from the cover of The Man-Machine (1978) went through their paces in 3-D, converted into robotic digital mannequins. Whenever an arm swept close to the crowd, there were more cheers. Clearly, nobody in the place was jaded by the effect. It didn't hurt that Kraftwerk's sound team had turned the antique theater into a gleaming sonic temple, with deep rich bass and well-differentiated textures. There were some rude folks who continued to arrive as the band moved seamlessly into Metropolis from the same album. I suppose the trip on the A train was longer than they anticipated.

Ralf Hutter's voice sounded a bit less substantial than in the past but still retained his tart, slightly bemused tone. He sang mostly in English, an unnecessary concession at this late date, but the lyrics are schematic enough that it hardly mattered. A little suite of songs from Computer World (1981), their last classic album, followed and it was hard not to get up and dance to the booming beat of Numbers, still as improbably, wonderfully funky as it was 33 years ago. Then they swung back and played the rest of The Man-Machine, with the bass of the title track especially revelatory - this was how it was supposed to sound - and the animation for Spacelab a whimsical delight. This brilliant album is inexplicably not included in Kraftwerk's Spotify discography - just buy it if you don't have it!

The visuals for The Model and Neon Lights cleverly harkened back to the glory days of UFA and German cinema, and the latter track segued perfectly in Autobahn, which was their American breakthrough in 1974 - even my mom used to sing it. We all went on a little drive on the titular highway, speeding past vintage Beetles and Mercedes-Benzes, before signaling properly and exiting. The sense of forward motion continued through Tour de France (1983) and selections from the album (2003) of the same name. We zoomed straight into the abyss of Radio-Activity (1975) and the mood of optimism palled, especially when the names of nuclear disaster sites, including Fukushima, flashed on the screen. Like a well-sequenced mix tape, however, they brought us all to safety on the Trans-Europe Express. While I would have liked to hear the Showroom Dummies or The Hall Of Mirrors, both slightly bitter tracks from the same album (1977), their medley was great, succesfully replicating the hypnotic flow of the record.

Nearly every band with a long career stumbles, and Techno-Pop (originally called Electric Cafe) from 1986, was Kraftwerk's fall from grace. With a labored genesis of nearly five years, and an equally labored sound - an ironically troubled adjustment to digital instruments for these sonic innovators - the album led to a 17 year hiatus. In concert, they played the first side in a substantially re-tooled version and it was much improved and very engaging, despite the fact that the songs still sound somewhat recycled. During Musique Non Stop, each member of Kraftwerk got a little solo spot before stepping away to stand in a spotlight and accept applause. Without going to multiple concerts it's impossible to say how much of what they played was improvised or pre-programmed, but it all sounded fabulous and the gestures of the other members showing appreciation for their comrades were well-choreographed and amusing.

Finally, Ralf Hutter was left alone to play his solo, injecting some drama into the song with dense washes of sound. Just as he seemed to be building to a crescendo, he stepped away to the loudest cheers of all, well befitting a living legend. The houselights stayed down and my mind-raced, trying to figure out what notable song they skipped. Pocket Calculator from Computer World would have made a great encore, but instead they played Aéro Dynamik, from Tour De France, and Planet Of Visions, the reworked version of their Expo 2000 theme song, which made its debut on Minimum-Maximum. The latter song is pretty terrific and sent everyone off into the night (or towards the besieged merch table) on waves of electro-euphoria.

While Kraftwerk's days of writing indelible, often prescient songs are likely behind them, the quality of every aspect of the concert showed them to be perfect stewards of their astounding legacy, which is in the DNA of all electronic music since their peak years. I've run into too many music fans who have no idea who they are; hopefully some of the noise generated by this tour will cause more people to investigate their amazing music. Even without songs from The Man-Machine, or the three albums that preceded Autobahn, my Spotify playlist will clue you in nicely if necessary.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Boogarins: Pure Love From Brazil


I don't listen to radio. There may be podcasts I listen to that are broadcast, but I don't know where or when. There is one exception to this rule: Duane Harriott's show on WFMU on Wednesdays from noon to three. I even have a calendar reminder set so I don't forget to tune in on my desktop every week. Duane's depth of knowledge and feel for music are slightly less astonishing when you learn his uncle is Derrick Harriott, the legendary reggae singer and producer - but only slightly. Every three hour show features at least one period of absolute lift-off, where the groove gets so deep it's hard to pay attention to anything else.

Duane could easily spin three hours of soul 45's that you've never heard before and then become desperate to hear again, but he's too committed to variety and new music to rest on those laurels. One band he started playing at the end of 2013 that piqued my interest was Boogarins, whose debut album was released by Other Music's label in October. It took me a while to follow up but when I heard they were making their first NYC appearance at Other Music last Monday, I made it a point to be there.

Let's but it bluntly: these four young guys from Brazil levitated the store. Right out of the gate, they blew through album-opener Lucifernandis with a cohesion and attack that took the song to another level, with the twin guitars of Fernando Almeida and Benke Ferraz playing the fanfare-like riff with swagger and style. The album was recorded back in 2012 when they were just out of high school so they've lived with these songs a bit. Also, their time in Austin at SXSW and a quick west coast swing must have brought them, along with Hans Castro (drums) and Raphael Vaz (bass), closer together as a unit.

No matter how evil the sound they made was, all of them, especially Almeida, radiated a sweetness and positivity that was highly charismatic. I couldn't help associating this affect with their country of origin, a Brazilian warmth that felt so good on that frigid Manhattan night. Doce was also a triumph, it's ringing opening reminiscent of The Beatles storming cover of Soldier Of Love as well as The Byrds at their most psychedelic. Another song - a new one, I believe - featured a devastating dubbed out breakdown that shook the floor. By the end of the hour-long set, there was no question that Boogarins had arrived, and in spectacular fashion. While I wasn't able to make it to Glasslands Gallery the next night, where they were in the middle of a four act bill headlined by Vertical Scratchers, from all I heard they were no less impressive. As Duane put it on the message board for his show afterwards: "Boogarins...Slayed!!!! I feel bad for the headliners. These kids ain't playing!!"

Boogarins, named after a jasmine flower that supposedly smells like "pure love," will be touring extensively in the U.S. and abroad through June. Get there if you can. And if you can't, get the album, As Plantas Que Curam (Plants That Heal), which is full of gems like Doce and Lucifernandes as well as more left-field moments like Eu Vou, just voice and atmospherics, and Canção Perdida, a brief trip to the jungle with guitar in the distance. They seem to come by their psychedelia more honestly than some current bands, soaking in the same waters enjoyed by fellow Brazilians Os Mutantes and other members of the Tropicalia movement. This is of a piece with the intimate, exploratory feel of the album, which for all its tossed-off flair is also strikingly assured. Almeida and Ferraz, who recorded the album on their own, have mined the music of their forebears and absorbed its lessons to make everything sound like their own. And based on what I heard at Other Music, this is just the beginning for Boogarins.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Reflections After The Clientele


"I Never saw it as a career, to be honest. I still am a believer that pop and rock and roll music can be art." - Alasdair MacLean, leader of The Clientele, in conversation with WFUV producer Andrew Hirshman, November 9th, 2009.

On their first album, Suburban Light, The Clientele almost seemed like a band designed to be fetishized, with their hazy but musically literate take on sixties psych-pop (via Felt and Luna) along with their innate British melancholy. Essentially a set of demos swathed in reverb, the album was also a mere prototype of the sounds Alasdair MacLean heard in his head. "We were just waiting to get in a proper studio and have strings, brass, choirs - Phil Spector crossed with Martin Hannett production," MacLean recalled on the Merge Records website earlier this year. "At the time (2000), every engineer wanted to make every band sound like Radiohead, which just broke everyone's heart. We couldn't get a warm sound anywhere we went in those days."

And so it came to pass: despite a further 10 year trajectory and four increasingly accomplished albums, there are those who hold Suburban Light as the peak of The Clientele's discography. While I love it, I can't agree. Similarly to the debut by The Smiths, I hear a band well on its way but not quite there. In both cases, the production doesn't always do justice to some magnificent songs and both Morrissey and MacLean indulged early on in some ill-advised falsetto. Perhaps the struggle towards mastery, rather than its achievement, is more attractive to a certain kind of listener. My opinion may put me in the minority (wouldn't be the first time) but even with the devotion of those early fans and hints of an expanding impact in the U.S., a shift in MacLean's songwriting - and maybe economic issues - led the band to go on "indefinite hiatus" in 2011.

Now with Merge announcing a deluxe reissue of Suburban Light, The Clientele made a rare appearance at The Bell House last Friday night. It wasn't really their show, however, as the line-up was put together by the Chickfactor zine to celebrate their 22nd birthday. This meant that there were three preliminary acts to get through before MacLean and his cohort took the stage. First up were The Saturday People, who haven't released anything since 2003 and may not have rehearsed since then, either. I don't want to be unkind, so I'll say no more. Next was Barbara Manning, who at one time in her 30 year career headed up SF Seals and Go-Luckys, and who now teaches high school in California. Here she performed solo, and while her banter and stage-presence were charming, the lack of a band and the fact that her guitar was often out of tune, caused me and my friend to once again decamp for the bar.

Talk and bourbon led us to return perhaps later than we should have and we found Versus in the middle of a song. Unlike the first two acts, this veteran band - active (mostly) since 1992 - came ready to play. Richard Balyut wielded his Gibson SG with authority and interlocked nicely with his brother James's Fender Jazzmaster. Fontaine Toups, who alternated vocals with Richard, often played near the middle of the neck of her bass, conjuring up a warm tone. The third Balyut brother, Edward, held it down on the drums, and they played a number of new songs. While the new material was in no way "confounding" (as Richard said), it was convincing and seemed to indicate that Versus is committed to being around for a while. While they were never a necessity in my life, they were always a welcome presence and I'm glad to see them back. Fans should be ecstatic.

The Clientele, however, are one of those necessary bands. I've not had fewer than three of their albums on my iPod for as long as I can remember. Like Nick Drake, they create an entire world through their songs and sound, and one that touches me deeply. They've had a few line-up shuffles over the years, so in a sense this was just a version of The Clientele, a return to a trio format they haven't used since 2005. But this was in no way a pick up band - bassist James Hornsey and drummer Mark Keen have been on the ride with MacLean since at or near the beginning - and as soon as MacLean began finger-picking a shimmering melody and singing in his warm tenor, a new world was created as if by magic. When Hornsey's liquid bass entered, joined by the metronomic soft ticking of Keen's high-hat and snare, that world was complete. Their faces were studies in concentration and absorption and served to bring us more deeply into their universe.

MacLean has been busy these last few years with Amor De Dias, his wonderful Spanish/Brazilian-influenced collaboration with Lupe Núñez-Fernándz of Pipas, and his concentration on nylon-string classical guitar in that band has honed his playing to a fine point. He played complex arpeggios and figures with a casual flair, barely looking at his instrument. The one extended solo he played (in E.M.P.T.Y) had a barbed tone and a cogent structure that had the crowd cheering. The songs, mostly from Suburban Light, The Violet Hour (2003) and Strange Geometry (2005), sounded better than ever, even with the occasional shaky moment, as when MacLean's guitar became unplugged (twice!) during Since K Got Over Me. The song is such a fantastic confection of sorrows that the audience barely registered the glitch. I'm fairly certain the only later song was Here Comes The Phantom, which MacLean told us, was only added by special request. Much appreciation to whoever did so, as it is one of my favorites.

Almost 90 minutes went by as if in a dream, which made it easy to almost ignore some of the odd things going on in the audience, including the antics of a young woman more interested in pouting for portraits right in front of the stage than in communing with the music. When The Clientele left, they were quickly brought back by our applause for an encore. "How about a couple more from Suburban Light?" MacLean asked to rapturous applause. Other than that, MacLean had spoken rarely, except to say "thank you," and at one point mentioned that he wasn't saying much because he was so "overwhelmed" by our response - I think it was a special night for them as well.

If you're new to this band, sign on to my Spotify playlist, which compiles some of my favorite songs by them. They're one of the finest groups of the last 20 years and deserve a retrospective. But the story of The Clientele may not be over. They recently recorded a couple of new songs for Merge's 25th Anniversary subscription series which is a hopeful sign in itself. Perhaps that, coupled with the reception they received at The Bell House and the obvious chemistry shared by MacLean, Hornsey and Keen will lead to a new period of activity for them. I would welcome that and I think even those Suburban Light purists would agree.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bang-Up World Premieres

Shara Worden (center) and the BOAC All Stars
Whenever I hear world-premiere performances - which almost can't be often enough - my first hope is that something new and beautiful will be introduced to the world. My second hope is that there will be more performances of the work(s). In the case of Bang On A Can's recent performance at the Ecstatic Music Festival, which featured three new works from their People's Commissioning Fund, I will be very surprised if there isn't a clamor from other new music ensembles to get their hands on at least one or two of these pieces.

First up at Merkin Hall, however, was an older piece, Lick, composed by BOAC co-founder Julia Wolfe. Its punky energy, big block chords and squealing soprano sax warmed up both the audience and the Bang On A Can All Stars. Reed player Ken Thomson's feet barely touched the ground during the performance. When the applause died down, WNYC's John Schaefer introduced Alvin Lucier, whose piece Firewood was the first of the evening's new works, which were all based on the theme of field recordings. I'm not sure if Lucier has read David Rothenberg's wonderful Bug Music, but he is already living it: The composition was inspired by the trails of insects under the bark of a piece of word - a field recording of a very different kind!

The meandering trail of the bugs is represented in sound by the cello, guitar and bass sweeping up and down the scale while interacting with pulses and tones from the clarinet, piano and vibraphone. The effect is of a sustained tone, inexorable and intense, with rhythmic beats occurring when the harmonies vibrated together. Schaefer pointed out beforehand that the piece did not contain any of Lucier's signature electronics. Lucier responded that he only used them when necessary "and after 50 years of composing electronic music, that's still my attitude." In any case, those vibrations were a whole new kind of synthesis. At just over six minutes, Firewood induced a state of concentration that was almost palpable in both players and listeners alike.

"Richard Reed Parry," I said to my friend, "That sounds familiar." "He's a member of Arcade Fire." "Oh, right," I mumbled, preparing to rid my mind of all the negative associations I have with that band. I'm not a fan, but that's not something I wanted to hold against Parry, so I listened with open ears as the musicians began his entry, The Brief And Neverending Blur.

Speaking of ears, those of the All Stars were occupied by stethoscopes, which were pressed against their chests so they could sync their individual playing with their own heartbeats. This was a nice, if slight, bit of theater that the musicians seemed to embrace, although its effect on the performance was hard to gauge. In any case, Parry's piece was lovely and wistful, evoking the music of Satie and the absorbing melancholy of watching rain stream down a window. Appearing in the background were the wobbly sounds of a dictaphone recording of Parry's piano music, which was left in an unheated shed in Canada for the better part of a year. John Cage would have approved of both the element of chance and the witty approach to the "field recordings" theme. When it comes to Parry's extra-Arcadian exploits, I say "more please."

The last of the premieres was Holographic by Daniel Wohl, composer of last year's Corps Exquis, which was on many "best-of" lists including my own. Part of his gift is alchemical, combining instruments - both acoustic and electronic - to create new and wondrous sounds. For Holographic, he "processed and stacked" recordings of instruments and vocals, in order to create an aural double image when accompanying the live performance of the musicians. The end result is beguiling and seductive, like fantasies projected on smoke, but not insubstantial. There is real melodic invention and compositional development in Holographic and I'm sure it will reveal even more delights upon further listening. It also ended with a satisfying thump, signaling the completion of the first half of the concert.

After a brief intermission, we returned for a performance of David Lang's Death Speaks, in an expanded arrangement for soprano with a sextet instead of the original trio. Completed in 2012, the half hour piece takes as its text various lines from Schubert songs where death himself speaks to the audience or another character in the song. The other stream of inspiration Lang drew on was the intimacy of "indie pop" as performed in small spaces, the way Schubert lieder were once heard. As in the original performances (and the 2013 recording) the vocalist was Shara Worden, whose ubiquity at the intersection of contemporary classical and indie rock can hardly be overstated. She is much admired for her crystalline voice whether performing her own music under the name My Brightest Diamond or collaborating with a host of composers.

I admit finding Worden and her cult just a bit precious, but she sang with deep engagement, flawlessly unspooling Lang's tear-stained libretto as the band played hypnotic, unresolved arpeggios. While I would have liked a little more articulation in the words, Worden has clearly taken ownership of this piece. Lang's incorporation of the additional instruments was very well conceived, especially the way the percussion linked up to the piano. The sound world occupied by Death Speaks seems closer to John Dowland than Schubert, but since he nearly invented the melancholy pop song that only seems fitting.

It had been a demanding night, so I welcomed the chance to revisit Death Speaks and the other fascinating music we heard on Q2 Music's stream of this remarkable concert. Let's hope these important new compositions find continued life in concert halls as well.


Saturday, March 08, 2014

Cogito Igor Sum

Stravinsky in the 1950's
"The piano itself is the center of my musical discoveries. Each note that I write is tried on it, and every relationship of notes is taken apart and heard on it again and again." - Igor Stravinsky

For most listeners, Igor Stravinsky is associated with the brilliant and sometimes exotic orchestral colors of his three French ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, all composed before the twentieth century was two decades old. Despite his long life (he died in 1971, at the age of 88) and career, these works cast a long shadow over his oeuvre, and all of music ever since. A good part of this is due to the sheer pleasure of listening to these scores, with their visceral rhythms, indelible melodies and his masterful use of every instrument. There's also the fact that as time went on, Stravinsky's music grew ever more "logical" and abstract, and while still beautiful, presented a glassy surface that sometimes seemed as impenetrable and unknowable as the man himself.

This is one of the fascinating elements of Jenny Lin's expert and engaging new collection of Stravinsky's piano music, compiling as it does music from 1908 to 1967. This gives us an opportunity to take a tour, over the course of about an hour, through his entire sound world as heard through the sonorities of his favorite instrument. This is a sensible idea: as the quote above indicates, all of his compositions started on the piano. In fact, a good many people - musicians and others - first encountered the Rite in a transcription for piano, albeit for four hands.

Not surprisingly, a few of the works Lin includes are transcriptions or arrangements, two by Stravinsky himself, two by his son Soulima, and one by Guido Agosti. It's only in the last, a take on three movements of the Firebird Suite, itself a reduction of the original ballet music, that we feel another composer's hand. Agosti, a student of the great Ferruccio Busoni, somehow manages to make Stravinsky sound slightly old fashioned. However, Agosti does retain a good bit of the outlandish fun of the original and Lin dispatches its many challenges without difficulty. In fact, her playing is flawless throughout, with a dynamic sparkle that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The album is not ordered chronologically, beginning with the Sonata from 1924, at the dawn of Stravinsky's neo-classical period. There's a slightly collage-like, even schizoid, effect to the way the trills and flourishes of an earlier age interact with his inborn modernism. The second movement feels very intimate in Lin's hands, as if she is channeling the composer while he searches out notes and "relationships of notes." Though the Sonata is one of the lengthier works here, it is still barely 11 minutes long. Concision was never a problem for Stravinsky, but there is no paucity of ideas in the Sonata or elsewhere.

While there is plenty of variety in Lin's selection, all the music is infused with the character of Stravinsky's formidable intellect and gimlet-eyed wit. It's a time-traveling journey that anyone with an interest in modern music should take, with only a few listens needed to expand most people's perceptions of the composer. For example, the lushly melodic Four Etudes from 1908, especially No. 1 in C Minor and No. 3 in E Minor, might surprise a few people with fixed ideas about the man, while the alien jazz of Ragtime (1918) and Piano-Rag-Music (1919) might reinforce those same ideas. "My knowledge of jazz," Stravinsky wrote much later, "was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played but as written." It was easier to be a brother from another planet in the days before you could see and hear everything from the comfort of your broadband connection.

There's another new project engineered to help you hear Stravinsky anew. This one is from The Bad Plus, an avant garde jazz trio of long standing, who have taken on the entirety of The Rite of Spring for their latest release (out March 25th). Consisting of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King, the group is known both for their cerebral approach to jazz and for applying their style (with varying success) to covers of popular favorites by the likes of Nirvana, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, and others. Put those two things together, plus the fact that they have adapted works by Ligeti, Babbitt, and even Stravinsky, and you would seem to have a group scientifically designed to execute an adaptation of one of the most popular classical works by one of the most cerebral composers. And, for the most part, there is life in this test tube baby.

The effectiveness of some of the most minimal sections is a reflection of both the ingenuity of The Bad Plus and the durability of Stravinsky's conception. For example, the penultimate track, Evocation of the Ancestors/Ritual Action of the Ancestors, has sections consisting almost entirely of quiet bass and whispered drums yet you always feel located in the heart of the Rite. Throughout the record, the trio fruitfully mines the "composed jazz" territory of Jimmy Giuffre, Kenyon Hopkins and Shorty Rogers, especially during the louder, more hard-driving sections. On the whole, The Bad Plus tackle this seemingly quixotic mission with aplomb.

The album is not an unqualified success, however. The first track features some slightly wishy-washy electronics augmenting the trio and the fact that the sounds never reappear on the album lends them even less conviction. Also, I wouldn't have minded a little more playfulness overall. While I'm not suggestion The Bad Plus go the full Ralph Font, the po-faced atmosphere starts to feel a little suffocating at times. After all, unlike the Stravinsky of 1918, The Bad Plus have actually heard jazz and it wouldn't hurt if they had made that a little more apparent on this accomplished effort.

Note: Quotes taken and photo adapted from Harold C. Schonberg's invaluable book, The Lives of the Great Composers, Third Edition.