Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Record Roundup: Solos, Duos, Ensembles

We are officially in the fourth quarter of 2021, which means all the albums I have yet to tell you about are starting to weigh heavily upon me. Here's an attempt to catch you up with some next-level new music releases featuring solo players, duos, and ensembles. Get comfy!

Note: feel free to press play on this playlist, which has selections from eight of the albums below.

Berglind María Tómasdóttir - Ethereality Icelandic flutist and multidisciplinary artist Tómasdóttir opens her latest album in quietly spectacular fashion, with Carolyn Chen's mysterious Stomachs Of Ravens (2018). An exploration of the flute's breathier tones, it has a rhythm that darts here and there, then stretches out, creating an abstract narrative. The recording is as superb as Tómasdóttir's technique, which is true for the whole album, including the folkish charms of Tryggvi M. Baldvinsson's Riposo (2015) and Anna Thorvaldsdottir's title track, composed in 2011. The latter makes stunning use of extended techniques, making for some startling noises amidst a wide dynamic range. It's an epic in 6:21 and, as this is the premiere - and only - recording, it will likely stand as definitive. The same can be said for Clint McCallum's Shut Open (2021), which arises from bass notes to a suspended, silvery cloud of sound, like the soundtrack for an as-yet-unwritten creation myth. In a word: spellbinding!

Wu Man and Kojiro Umezaki - 流芳Flow In 2014, I raved about Umezaki's (Cycles), praising it as the most complete picture to date of this master of the shakuhachi, the Japanese flute. I looked forward to more and now, seven years later, I finally have it in this gorgeous collaboration with Wu Man, as much as virtuoso on the pipa (a Chinese lute) as Umezaki is on his instrument. A series of solo and duo compositions/improvisations inspired by the classical Chinese garden at the Huntington museum near Los Angeles, and drawing on their deep experience of both folk and contemporary traditions, these gentle and spare pieces will transport you there - or wherever you let your imagination take you. 

The City Of Tomorrow - Blow The three works here serve as both an introduction to this pioneering wind quartet and as a justification for the role of such an ensemble in contemporary music. The centerpiece is a world premiere recording of Hannah Lash's Leander and Hero (2015), an episodic series of nine short movements, which uses the Greek myth of lovers kept apart by an apocalyptic storm to bring the climate crisis down to the level of individuals trying to survive on the planet. But there's nothing didactic or obvious about the music, which is consistently fascinating as it pulls you through the story. Blow, Franco Donatoni's piece from 1989, opens the album and dazzles in its layering of the instruments, with muted horns backing up swirling flute and oboe with three-dimensional effect. The final piece is Esa-Pekka Salonen's Memoria (2003) and, while it meanders a bit, the assured ensemble writing lets these remarkable players revel in the tones and textures of their instruments - you will, too.

Recap - Count To Five There is every kind of struck object on this fantastic debut from a new percussion quartet, resulting in a kaleidoscopic array of sounds. Angelica Negron's title track, which includes the crackles and thwaps of found instruments, opens the album with a ritual flair as it interpolates fragments of what sound like field recordings. The ceremony continues with the bongos and side drums of Hammers by Alison Loggins-Hull, which finds the drums chasing Tiahna Sterling's flute in a merry dance. Ellen Reid's Fear | Release introduces bells into the equation, with playful trills and a stop-start bass drum patten that gains inevitability as the piece goes on. It's delightful and unsettling all at once. Equally arresting is Hedera by Lesley Flannigan, who first caught my attention when she opened for Tristan Perich a few years ago. With rumbling drums and the composer singing long held notes, it maintains a level of intrigue for a full 20 minutes. As the layers of voices accumulate, it becomes ever more a mournful balm for our times, both comforting and acknowledging how hard things can be. New music from Mary Kouyoumdjian is always welcome and Children Of Conflict: Samar's Song is among her most powerful works. Andie Tanning's violin soars elegiacally over pensive eighth notes, a dramatic meditation on loss and tragedy. Caroline Shaw's arrangement of the 1897 hymn, Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown, with the composer's clear soprano and Recap joined by Transit New Music, sounds both luxurious and spare, like a Shaker table made of rich mahogany. It strikes the perfect note of hope and strength to end a masterfully sequenced collection. I would be remiss if I didn't note that all the members of Recap are BIPOC females, not the most common thing in this space, and all the composers are women. But this band needs no special pleading to get on your radar and on your repeat playlist.

Borderlands Ensemble - The Space In Which To See Opening an album with a world-premiere recording of a piece by Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti is a sure way to grab me. Her title piece (2019), four short movements setting a poem by Layli Long Soldier, an Oglala Lakota, is equally rigorous and dramatic, with a dark undertow that is one of her signatures. Like many of the pieces here, it also foregrounds the horn of co-founder Johanna Lundy, who plays with a creamy tone that breathes marvelous life into Jay Vosk's Passing Ships (2019), which seeks to depict human migration in melancholic fashion. Part of the Borderlands brief is to connect the culture of their home base, Tucson, Arizona to that of Mexico, which bears remarkable fruit in Ometéotl (2019), in which Alejandro Vera pays homage to the Aztec god of creation. With tense strings and a dialog between Lundy's discursive horn and the terse guitar of Dr. José Luis Puerta, it has a careful solemnity that seems to be holding back the forces of nature. There are more delights on this well-curated debut, including stylish adaptations of Mexican folk songs, and I urge you to explore the whole landscape.

Loadbang - Plays Well With Others I've been on the fence about this quartet, perhaps due to their unusual combination of trumpet, trombone, bass clarinet, and baritone voice, but in the grand tradition of Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown's "With Strings" albums, adding a string orchestra has been just the ticket for me to find entry. That's not to say that there isn't still a profound weirdness to what's going on here. For example, there's Heather Stebbins' Riven (2020), which has singer Jeff Gavett moaning incoherently, something making insect noises, plops, clicks, and occasional notes from the trumpet (Andy Kozar), trombone (William Lang), and clarinet (Adrian Sandi), and the strings (conducted by Eduardo Leandro) gradually ramping up the tension to the breaking point. It's a wild ride, equally appropriate for an Italian giallo soundtrack as the concert hall. Eve Beglarian's You See Where This Is Going (2019) is a close enough setting of a poem by Brandon Constantine to be a distant cousin of Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, with marvelous pizzicato strings and Gavett outdoing himself at the top of his range. Reiko Füting and Taylor Brook also contribute pieces of baffling originality, and Scott Wollschleger's CVS may be his most mind-boggling piece yet - you'll never look at that drugstore chain the same way - with the three of them finding a home somewhere in the region of Scott Walker's later albums. Finally, with any last shred of provincialism scoured away, Paula Matthusen's Such Is Now The Necessity delivers a dose of lush beauty. Bold stuff - and consider me knocked off that fence into Loadbang territory. P.S. SCARY-good string section, too, with members of JACK, Wet Ink, Talea, AndPlay, and other notable groups joining in. Note: catch Gavett at the Americas Society on November 5th, performing a Taylor Brook world premiere with Yarn/Wire - should be a heckuva night. Details here.

Tak Ensemble - Brandon Lopez: Empty And/Or Church of Plenty This new release on the cassette label Tripticks finds one of our most esteemed groups collaborating with Lopez, a bassist and composer. While Tak commissioned the piece, the final result arose from more of a dialog between composer and musicians rather than the handing over of a score to place. Lopez joins the ensemble adding a dark, droning bottom end for them to react to, triggering some otherworldly skirling from violinist Marina Kifferstein on Side A and a great clatter of brushes from percussionist Ellery Trafford on Side B. Both sides make for compelling listening, but you get more of a feel of the full group on Side B, with vocalist Charlotte Mundy letting it rip along with Madison Greenstone's Clarinet and Laura Cocks' flute. The last few minutes is wonderfully bonkers. And don't worry, you can stream the tracks on Bandcamp so you don't have to get your cassette deck out of storage. I, for one, couldn't live without mine and enjoy buying cassettes as convenient physical artifacts that cost less than new vinyl - and I play them, too, of course!

Ensemble Interactivo de La Habana - Studio Session Sure, I love the Buena Vista Social Club as much as the next person, but I fear we have been ignoring contemporary Cuban music at our peril. Now, amongst all their other activities, Tak Ensemble has also done the public service of releasing an immersive debut from this Cuban collective on their Tak Editions label. Consisting of one 41-minute continuous track, while rooted in improvisation nevertheless transits through moods and sonic universes that gain inevitability with each repeat listen. Call them movements if you must, but that would just take away from the fluidity that arose when seven years of work by, performing at street fairs and festivals of the avant garde, finally came to fruition in the studio for nine musicians, including percussion, vocals, flute, and more. I'm sure it was deeply satisfying experience for them and that translates fully to the listener. 

Nate Wooley - Mutual Aid Music Picture the scene: Eight of the finest musicians from the realms of new music and contemporary jazz gather at the redoubtable Oktaven Audio and over the course of single day record eight pieces, each about ten minutes long, using a combination of notation, graphic scores, and instructions for improvisation. On top of that, the players - assembled by trumpeter/composer Wooley - are to question "what they add to the ensemble as human beings first and musicians second." Challenging? Maybe for some, but for Ingrid Laubrock (sax), Joshua Modney (violin), Mariel Roberts (cello), Sylvie Courvoisier and Cory Smythe (pianos), Matt Moran (vibraphone), and Russell Greenberg (vibraphone and percussion), this is their bread and butter. Each piece, which traverses a range from the delicate and starlit to the knotty and provocative, has its own character and occupies the center of a Venn diagram where the chamber music and jazz of the 21st century meet and greedily absorb the best qualities of each other. Wooley has been developing the form and philosophy of Mutual Aid Music since 2014 and this album is quite the proof of concept. While the high-minded ideals of "community action and the human drive to provide succor to our fellow humans" are wonderful, even better is just sinking into the expressive wonders of these pieces, marveling at the bravery and generosity of these incredible musicians to try new ways of creative collaboration.

JACK Quartet - Christopher Otto: rags'ma As on another Greyfade release I reviewed earlier this year, there is a lot of verbiage and theorizing behind this compositional debut from Otto, a founding member of JACK. I encourage you to read all of it as you can learn a ton about just intonation and what motivates someone to compose. Or you could just order the album and trust me when I say it sounds like little else written for string quartet. A series of slowly moving transitions played by either two or three quartets overdubbed atop each other, the sound is meditative but multidimensional, at times sounding like nothing other than a prop plane - or two - lazily traversing a summer sky. This might not be for you if you're an impatient listener, but if you can get behind some radical minimalism, look no further.

Miki Sawada and Brendan Randall-Myers - A Kind Of Mirror This collaboration between pianist Sawada and composer/sound-designer Randall-Myers began life as a performance piece thattoured throughout West Virginia that offered an experience (apparently) equal parts Marina Abramovic and Mr. Rogers. But that show only included two movements, which they then expanded to five and have now recorded for Slashsound. The question of whether the visuals are needed is answered in the first minutes of Shadow as a drone gives way to crystalline piano, developing into an extravagantly beautiful piece that gradually becomes nearly overwhelming. Bloom continues that vibe, betraying Sawada and Randall-Myers' shared love of long-distance running. You will be breathless. Then comes Echo, with single notes following each other like raindrops on a window pane. The audio processing gradually adds artificial resonances, creating an enhanced piano of the mind. Mirror presents calming chords surrounded by electronic clouds of sound that gradually overtake the soundscape before leading to the dazzling arpeggios of Cascade, the final track, which delivers the thrills of hitting that final mile of a marathon and discovering it's all downhill. Note: Get to the Public Theater on November 23rd for the album release show!

Julia Den Boer - Kermès Last year, I praised Den Boer's solo piano debut, Lineage, for its "sparkling and contemplative" nature and for its smart curation of four Canadian composers. I also called it a "go-to "morning album" - and, what do you know, she's gone and done it again - with only one Canadian this time. Featuring works by Giulia Lorusso (Italy), Linda Catlin Smith (Toronto, via NY), Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Iceland), and Rebecca Saunders (London), she's gathered together pieces that work well together, with enough contrast to avoid monotony, but also enough shared resonance to make for a complete whole. She's also received the deluxe recording treatment from Oktaven Audio so you can hear her sublime control of dynamics with even more clarity than on Lineage. It was also a coup to feature the first studio recording of Thorvaldsdottir's Reminiscence, a 2017 piece premiered in 2020 by Justin Krawitz. It's an almost skeletal work, held together only by Den Boer's deft pedal work, and seems to explore a world of deep interiority and features some sonic touches that will expand your idea of what the piano can do. This wonderful collection continues the establishment of Den Boer as one of the finest pianists working in new music.

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