Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Brooklyn Rider's Journey

For their entry in the River To River series, this fantastic string quartet traveled from Vienna to Brazil, and from Kentucky to Japan, ending up among their fellow nomads, the Roma.

Mozart's Quartet No. 8 in F Major opened the show and proved to be music that is of its time in all the right ways. You can instantly hear how engaged the 17 year old Wolfgang was with the people and society around him. Brooklyn Rider's lively playing conjured up scenes of tinkling glassware and witty conversation - a party - in the first movement, moving naturally to the nocturnal Andante - the hushed after-party - and then on to the streaks of sunlight and galloping carriage ride of the final movements. Brilliant.

Phillip Glass's String Quartet No. 2 "Company" followed and, while I have become less convinced by his work over the years, there was certainly nothing unconvincing about the performance.

Much more fascinating was violinist Colin Jacobson's arrangement of Joao Gilberto's Undiu, which began with moody distortions and then got the whole group humming while making wonderful use of guest players Jeff Beeches on bass and Mathias Kunzli on percussion. This debut performance was a joy and the piece should be on their next record.

Colin's own Sheriff's Liede, Sheriff's Freude (a tribute to the long-suffering "sheriff" of the group, violist Nicholas Cords) closed the first half. With its bluegrass interjections it made good use of the virtuoso talent and wit of his fellow players.

Kojiro Umezaki, a master of the shakuhachi, took the stage alone to open the second part of the concert. He explained that his piece, ...as if none of this had ever happened..., was based on a work commemorating the victims of the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo (100,000 people died) and related it to the recent disasters in Japan. The gorgeously anguished breath of the flute competing with (and almost overwhelmed by) the glitchy electronics coming off his iPad made for a haunting meditation. The quartet returned for a beautiful rendition of Lullaby From Itsuki, a traditional Japanese melody that translated perfectly to this most untraditional combination of instruments. Another Umezaki piece, (Cycles) what falls must rise (which appears on Dominant Curve), brought the iPad back into the fold for another glitchy, powerful excursion.

Umezaki, who has worked extensively with Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, is a triple threat - a great player, an intriguing and emotional composer and a natural communicator.

The last part of the trip was a suite of music of the Roma, which touched on a variety of aspects of that tradition, from melancholia to gypsy jazz that would have had Stephane Grappelli tapping his feet and itching to join in. 

Each piece was met with louder cheers by the audience, who, whatever their travel plans were walking in, would happily hitch a globe-trotting expedition with Brooklyn Rider any time.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Best Of 11 (So Far)

This has been such a great year for music so far that if it ended now I would have a perfectly respectable Top Ten list. Since it seems that we who opine about music can no longer wait for the end of the year to make some sort of list, I'll join in with my provisional pronouncement. Don't feel like reading? Check the playlist here.

1. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues: An astonishing follow-up from Robin Pecknold and co. Greater sophistication and a new directness in the lyrics make this an undeniable record.

2. The Strokes - Angles: I think time will prove me right that this is their best album so far. Full of precision, vertiginous stops and starts, wit and melody, this is thrilling rock'n'roll. Celebrate your independence from groupthink and give this one a few more chances.

3. Prodigy - Complex Presents The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP: This is turning into a banner year for the man born Albert Johnson. He got out of jail, released his searing (and entertaining) memoir, My Infamous Life (get the audio book - more music!), and eased his way back into the biz with this free mixtape. Sid Roams produced the bulk of the cuts and proves a strong foil for P's syrupy slow intensity. Black Devil is a highlight along with Stronger, featuring a Nina Simone sample that ties nicely back to Prodigy's jazz heritage.

4. Amor de Dias - Street Of The Love Of Days: This was a nice surprise. Alisdair MacLean of The Clientele joins forces with Lupe Núñez-Fernández of Pipas to concoct a lighter than air confection of folk and Bossa Nova inflected tunes, including a remake of Harvest Time that outdoes the original from Bonfires On The Heath. Even with its hints of darkness, this Is the chill out record of the year.

5. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX - We're New Here: Speaking of darkness, this is a nightmare you can dance to. Jamie XX has rescued GSH's last project to create an avant collection of soundscapes with haunted interjections of spoken word and singing. Though I've already pissed one guy off with a five star review on Amazon, I still say it's a work of art.

6. Gavin Friday - Catholic: 16 years I've waited for this and his patented blend of sepulchral/angelic vocals, slinky music and emotional complexity has not dimmed in power.

7. Choir Of St. Mary's Cathedral - Bruckner Motets: It's a common metaphor to say that Anton Bruckner's massive, magnificent symphonies were cathedrals sculpted in sound so I've long been curious about his actual church music. While I can't connect to his extreme religiosity, his passionate engagement is palpable in these wonderfully concise pieces, sung exquisitely by this choir. The instrumental interludes are just as superbly played and make for a well-rounded experience.

8. Bon Iver - Bon Iver: Like Fleet Foxes, this sophomore effort from a member of the class of 2008 was eagerly awaited. By now, everyone knows about Justin Vernon's wild ride from a cabin in Wisconsin to smoking blunts with Rick Ross in Kanye's Hawaiian studio. However, success has not led him to simplify - in fact, the opposite. Bon Iver has more in common with his side projects Volcano Choir and Gayngs than with anything on Hot 97. Oblique lyrics, dense washes of sound and a greater dynamic range make this an album to get lost in.

9. TV On The Radio - Nine Types Of Light: After pursuing outside interests with varying success (Loved most of Rain Machine, cooled quickly on most of Maximum Balloon), the reigning band of Brooklyn brothers returns with sensational sounding, widescreen art pop/funk/rock/etc. Every song brims with humor and intelligence, and on Killer Crane TVOTR demonstrate a new found delicacy that wouldn't sound out of place on a Zombies record.

10. Radiohead - The King Of Limbs: After the direct hit of In Rainbows, this collection of introspective avant-chamber pieces may seem off-putting. But each listen reveals new compositional rigor and melodic inevitability. While it wouldn't be unreasonable for the outside observer to think that Thom Yorke could be at a place of contentment in his life, the emotions conveyed here hint that he's been through some bruising experiences since In Rainbows. Every moment of quiescence feels hard-earned. 

Bubbling Under: While I'm fairly certain that the above will remain in my good graces, their order and inclusion in the final Best Of 11 is subject to change. Here's a few other things I've been enjoying: Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean: Sam Beam writes songs that sound so right and I like the funky touches and edgier lyrics. This may nose its way back on to the Top Ten. Lucinda Williams - Blessed: Based purely on feel, this is my favorite Lucinda record since Car Wheels. Powerful lyrics and Elvis Costello's(!) wrenching guitar leads make for a deeply engrossing collection. Dennis Coffey - Dennis Coffey: The Scorpio man is back with his slashing six string and young guns to spur him on. Thievery Corporation - Culture Of Fear: Don't be afraid - the grooves are atmospheric and the bass is in your face. Maybe not as strong as Radio Retaliation but it keeps growing on me. Son Lux - We Are Rising: His debut was a favorite back in 2008. This one is a bit more obscure but I need to give it more time. And then there's what will be released in the next six months (Wilco, Breton, Bjork - I'm talking to you), which could throw everything into delightful chaos.