Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pianos In Context

Beethoven was a pirate. He was all too happy to sell the same work over and over to different publishers in order to reap more revenue from his compositions. One could imagine that were he alive today he would have no problem with multiple recordings of his pieces, as long as he got a cut. But from the listener's point of view, there's always the potential for over-saturation when it comes to music composed centuries ago: How many virtuoso and brilliantly recorded performances of Mozart or Beethoven do we actually need?

Of course, the interpretive possibilities are endless for anything written before the dawn of recording, but it helps to have something extra for me to re-engage with works that are well-represented in the catalogs of every label. Hence, context.

In the case of Leif Ove Andsnes's new recording of Beethoven's Piano Concertos Nos. 2 &; 4, this is his second release under the rubric The Beethoven Journey. Like the first, which included Piano Concertos 1 & 3, this features the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with Andsnes conducting from the keyboard.

In truth, beyond making "the composer's music the centerpiece of my life as a performer and recording artist," Andsnes has not created any grand structure on which to hang his exploration of Beethoven's music for keyboard and orchestra, which will eventually culminate in a disc of the fifth concerto coupled with the Choral Fantasy. One could even get a whiff of marketing behind the whole thing. But stop sniffing and put the damned disc on, or do whatever you have to do to hear it.

When you do, you will experience some of the most sheerly sublime music-making imaginable. Especially in Piano Concerto No. 2, the transparency of texture, the rhythmic articulation, and the continuity of line put into focus everything you could want from these works. Andsnes seems to demonstrate a stylish self-effacement, managing not to insert himself in an obvious way between the listener and the notes on the page.

While there is no claim to "authenticity" behind Andsnes's approach, the choice of a chamber orchestra was a wise one, avoiding the encrustations of doubled instruments and allowing Beethoven's sparkle to shine through. And there is plenty of sparkle, most notably in the earlier of the two works. About ten years separates the composition of the two concertos and there is a marked difference, with a slightly squarer sound to No. 4, with its big tuttis and sections of churning drama. It seems a bit more "professional," with the merest diminishment in the sense of discovery and joy.

But overall, this is fantastic sounding stuff, flawlessly performed and recorded, and can surely hold its own next any of the great recordings that I've heard. Old Ludwig Van himself might have let the license to this recording go for less than his usual rate, delighted as he would be to hear his music so well presented.

Having grown up in the rock era, I make a distinction between recordings and records, with the former being a more straightforward presentation of the music and the latter involving studio techniques, sequencing or some other kind of artistic intervention between the performance and the listening experience. Perhaps also because of the times in which I grew up, I tend to enter into a closer relationship with records over recordings.The Andsnes Beethoven is most definitely a recording, but David Greilsammer's spectacular Scarlatti: Cage: Sonatas is a record - and one of the best of 2014 so far.

Juxtaposition is a fairly common strategy in the world of classical music as a way of injecting new life into old repertoire but rarely has it been employed so well. Greilsammer picked up on the connection between Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage, both as seekers of the new - inventors, he calls them - and men simultaneously in and out of their times.

The program is uncomplicated: Greilsammer carefully selected eight of the more than 550(!) Scarlatti keyboard sonatas and half of the 16 sonatas from Cage's Sonatas and Interludes and goes back and forth between the two composers in a sequence of his own devising. He performs both men's work on modern instruments, although naturally Cage's music is played on a piano that has been prepared with screws, nails and other items.

A beautifully rounded performance of Scarlatti's Sonata in D Minor, K. 213, starts off the album, it's crepuscular introduction seeming to rise out of the ether itself. Greilsammer's mastery of dynamics and the warm tone of the recording makes for a performance so assured and convincing that I can hardly believe he managed to shave 90 seconds off the length of Ivo Pogorelich's benchmark recording. How can it not sound frantic? And then Cage's Sonata XVI & XV starts up, placing stars in the same sky Scarlatti gazed upon over 200 years earlier - and I swoon.

That's the record - startling consonances and dissonances across time, all presented as beautiful music, no ideology in sight. The lack of pedantry should convince listeners from both sides of the fence to hear both Baroque and avant garde sounds as Greilsammer does, as dessert not medicine.

This is not the first time Greilsammer has pursued the "compare and contrast" method of making a record. In 2012 he released Baroque Conversations, which combined a variety of Baroque era piano music alongside modern works. While the playing was as articulate and expert as it is here, it felt like a bit of a stunt. Not so here - focusing on two composers helps and there is real artistry in the sequencing this time around. For example, Greilsammer wisely holds the big block chords of Cage's Sonata I until the middle of the collection, forming a sturdy backbone to the album. And just when you think Cage is the only one who gets to stomp around the playroom, along comes Scarlatti's D Minor, K. 175 a couple of tracks later, throwing bizarre chords left and right and having a high old time - you will, too.

For a sampling of the sounds from Scarlatti: Cage: Sonatas check out this video with David Greilsammer literally swiveling between the conventional piano and the prepared one to play bits of the sonatas. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

The GOASTT Is Real

At this late date, I doubt that there is very much that surprises Yoko Ono. Yet there she was, on Soundcheck, expressing astonishment that Sean Lennon, music director of the reconstituted Plastic Ono Band, knew all of her and John's songs, "... all the intros and everything, note for note!" My immediate thought was: "Where have you been, lady?"

Sean has been a major part of my musical life since 1996 when Into The Sun came out. Not only did he play most of the instruments on the album, but he wrote songs alternately vulnerable and bluff - sometimes in the same song - showing an easy mastery of the loud-quiet-loud thing, and also incorporating sounds from Brazilian psych before it was fashionable. Into The Sun was a constant soundtrack that resonated emotionally with things I was experiencing at the time. I found it strange that some the critical community had a quite different reaction - that album still only has 2.5 stars on AMG.

Never mind those bollocks - I was a fan, and have remained one. In 2010, a few years after the supremely accomplished Friendly Fire (check out Headlights), he started a new project with his girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl called The Ghost Of A Saber Toothed Tiger. Picking up on the softer side of French Ye Ye pop, the delicate (OK, precious) songs were a far cry from the blood-drenched songs on his earlier albums (Dead Meat, anyone?). But the two made such a charming pair that headed down to the South Street Seaport with my daughter to see them live.

Along with a loose crowd on the pier we witnessed the emergence of a duo with star power, and more importantly, musical power. They performed with a full band and if there had been a roof, they would have blown it off. The folks drinking their iced tea on the nearby terrace looked a bit startled. Thing was, the album they released consisted of acoustic demos. There was another collection that was at first only sold on tour but, while it featured the whole group, it had the distinctly tentative air of a rehearsal session.

So here I was blathering away to everyone about this vision in sound but I might as well have been trying to convince people that I actually saw a ghost. Mystical Weapons, Sean's aural action painting project with drummer Greg Saunier, which came out last year, helped my cause quite a bit. "That's Sean Lennon?" people asked when I played it. A few songs later: "Is that still Sean Lennon?"

Now we have Midnight Sun, the new album under the GOASTT moniker and the only word that came to me seconds after clicking play on the Soundcloud stream was: Finally. Now people will believe me, here's the full package of where Lennon is now - and it is a package deal as Charlotte is a full collaborator. She's a terrific, economical bass player, has a delightful voice and a mischievous quality that leavens some of Sean's darker impulses - but not all of them. The mighty impala-slaying riff that opens the record comes from her, as Sean revealed in a recent interview.

After Too Deep, we get Xanadu, a jaunty churn drenched in Chamberlin flute, and the trippy Animals, constituting a one-two-three punch combo that both the album and listener have to recover from slightly. Not everyone will be charmed by the slightly cutesy Johannesburg, although its richly detailed outro is a delight, ending with Charlotte's laughter. The sense of play continues with the title track, with its question mark of a riff that resolves into a killer chorus: "And I'm melting into the midnight sun/And I'm just another ordinary alien."

Last Call lands us on the dark side of the moon on swoops of slide guitar, but bounces into the light when Sean and Charlotte trade gnarly lines of singsong surrealism, before blasting off again via a Wurlitzer solo and an expansive workout by Sean on guitar. They also show their range by covering the classic Golden Earrings as a lysergic waltz - works perfectly.

My pick for second single would be Great Expectations, which shades into self-reference on the ascending winner of a chorus: "Great expectations/All eyes on you." It's an instant ear-worm, but he wisely doesn't overwork it. Poor Paul Getty tells the gruesome tale of that scion's kidnapping, keeping it light in contrast with the subject matter. Like Great Expectations, however, there's that resonance with Sean's own life. Not only has he dealt with critical skepticism but he knows first-hand what it's like to grow up with a target on your back.

Don't Look Back Orpheus is a concise telling of that ancient tale on a wonderfully labyrinthine melody, with Charlotte's percussion lending an air of ritual. Moth To A Flame is the perfect closer to the album, another Floydian voyage that takes off on waves of Sean's snarling electric lap steel. Like several songs, he plays most of the instruments, circling back to his early days as a developing studio virtuoso. He has helpers, however; besides Charlotte several songs feature Jared Samuel, another multi-instrumentalist that's also part of the touring band.

The album is self-produced and, although they call on old hands Dave Fridmann (mixing) and Greg Calbi (mastering), there's a distinctly handmade feel to Midnight Sun, including the book-like packaging featuring Sean and Charlotte's artwork. It's easy to imagine boxes of CD's and vinyl in the entryway to the New York brownstone that serves as headquarters for their label, Chimera. This only adds to the appeal of the album, confirming that this is no mere product, but music made by people driven to do it. Find your passion in theirs, in the land of the Midnight Sun.

The GOASTT is touring extensively this summer, opening for Beck as well as headlining. Expect no itinerary when they hit the stage...


Monday, May 19, 2014

Stacked Odds: Breton Live

Adam Ainger uses space to keep time, lifting his arms high above the drums to create the groove that drives Breton's taut songs. This left him slightly confined in the tight stage at Glasslands last Friday, but nothing he and his three mates weren't used to on their 22nd show in 26 days, cutting a swath through small clubs from LA to NYC. In Europe, Breton plays to thousands but they know that you need to go almost person to person to make an impression in America. Based on the reception in Williamsburg, they're on track.

Ainger's high hat work is also extraordinarily detailed, reminiscent of Dennis Davis's work with Bowie, and part of what makes him the most instrumentally virtuosic member of the band. But that's as it should be - a duff drummer will keep the most ambitious band from achieving lift-off. Even so, there was a marked difference in the comfort levels of everyone on stage since I first saw them over two years ago in their NY debut at Mercury Lounge. Ian Patterson, mostly controlling the electronics but occasionally slashing at a guitar, brought real style to his approach, whether jabbing a button, adjusting a sound or grabbing the mic to beef up the backing vocals. 

Dan McIlvenny was pure energy on bass and keyboards, seeking the same joy in movement that he probably finds on the dance floor, and Roman Rappak was assured as front man, bringing the crowd closer and dishing out atmospheric guitar or barbed wire bass as required. Even with the hard roadwork they did prior to reaching Brooklyn, he was in fine voice, maybe injecting a little more grit into his delivery, which was entirely welcome.

Their second album, War Room Stories, released earlier this year, was a step on from their debut, both drawing on pop influences and layering on orchestral arrangements for ambiance or epic sweep. Obviously, the orchestra is not on tour with them (perhaps they should connect with Hollie Cook and share the cost of taking a string section on the road) but that was no problem as the arrangements lent a consistency to the songs no matter what album they were from. The new material, especially Envy, Closed Category and Got Well Soon shined brightly, although a highlight was December from 2010, which they obviously still enjoy playing.

The other continuity you could put down to the near mayhem they created on stage, everyone in their own orbit but acting in concert and communicating constantly with glances and gestures, like a battle-hardened assault squad. Many in the audience reacted accordingly, dancing furiously and accenting the drama of the music with private choreography. 

At this point, I have to use my imagination to put myself in a crowd of five or seven thousand people at one of their shows. But another few campaigns like this recent tour across our massive and sometimes musically conservative nation should see them playing to larger and larger audiences. I'll be there next time either way.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Umezaki's (Cycles)

The shakuhachi is such a distinctive sounding instrument, with its breathy tones, non-western scale, and inherent drama, that it is often used to provide "world music" touches to film scores and pop songs. Of course, in Japan, there is a centuries old tradition around the bamboo flute, with all sorts of social and political shadings to its history. Kojiro Umezaki, a shakuhachi virtuoso as well as a composer, seeks to insert it into the arena of avant garde music by combining it with electronics and western instruments. While he has performed with the Silk Road Ensemble since 2005 and has had his works on albums by Brooklyn Rider and others, (Cycles), released last month, is his most complete statement yet.

Anyone put off by the term avant garde, shouldn't worry: Umezaki is a natural communicator who not only seeks to connect with cultures but with people. The first piece, (Cycles) America literally features his adopted country from coast to coast, incorporating recordings of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along with the voice of Walt Whitman. Surrounded by glitchy but warm electronics and plush vibraphone tones and influenced by Dvorak's New World Symphony, it's an intriguing introduction to the record. 108, the much longer piece that follows, dives head first into more distant waters, combining Umezaki's flute with a Korean drum (janggo), Indian bells (manjira), and a truly ancient Iraqi harp, the Santur. The quartet improvises within a predetermined structure and the result is a captivating conversation with contemplative spaces and dense ensemble work. While it is as polyglot as any of those Silk Road records, it avoids the crowd-pleasing crossover sounds that thrill the PBS set.

I heard Umezaki perform his version of the traditional Japanese folk song Lullaby from Itsuki in a River to River concert a few years a ago and it was a haunting beauty then as now. His performance is flawless, restrained yet still connected to the emotions of the homesick nursemaid from the song. There is less restraint in "...seasons continue, as if none of this ever happened...", which he also performed at that concert. Consisting solely of shakuhachi and electronics, it is a devastatingly effective elegy for the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. Sad yet shot through with hope, it is a signal accomplishment for Umezaki as composer and performer.

For Zero is a luminous, short piece with vibraphone, percussion and gleaming electronics. Notes accumulate...then dissipate - it's lovely. The last piece, (Cycles) what falls must rise, features Brooklyn Rider in addition to Umezaki's flute and electronics. It is actually the same recording that Brooklyn Rider released on their Dominant Curve album in 2010, but "starts/ends at a different point in the structure of the piece" - a remix, if you will. The new version starts abruptly with two plucked notes on the cello (from around 4:05 in the earlier version) and then launches into a keening section, which also has an elegiac feel. There's emotional resonance here as well as a more intellectual pleasure in listening to the breathy, bending notes of the flute combine with and then deviate from the silky glissando of the strings. The synthetics add an unsettling air, whether from a low drone or a stuttering bit of static. There's a marvelous moment of resolution near the halfway point when the static gets taken up by the cello and all of a sudden there are longer melodic lines with an almost Gypsy quality. Umezaki's approach to the instruments is nearly orchestral here, as if each instrument were its own section. It makes one wonder what he would do with a full orchestra as his palette. Based on this gorgeous, rewarding collection, there is no end to where he can go.

Sunday, May 04, 2014


When you nod your head it causes movement in your cerebrospinal fluid, inducing a semi-hypnotic state that is very relaxing, and nodding your head to music seems to make you physically at one with the sounds. Some of the best music produces an almost involuntary motion that also leads to a increase in our endorphins - an addictive experience that we seek out when hearing something new. I'm kind of making up all that neuroscience as I go along, but there is probably a grain of truth behind it. A perfect example of this is the second album by Mobb Deep, The Infamous. Now 20 years old, this dark and dirty masterpiece keeps growing in stature, in no small part due to its unparalleled ability to hypnotize listeners.

The Mobb have released many good, and even great songs and albums since 1994 but The Infamous still reigns supreme. Part of the artistic success of The Infamous is down to the sheer sound of it: a warm, crackling murk of old jazz and soul records sliced open with thin, sharp drums and stitched together into haunting loops and sections. The mood is aggressive but with a scorched sorrow underneath it that is utterly compelling. While the rappers were obviously very young at the time, their flow has a naturalness that makes it like an elevated conversation among great storytellers. You can't help hanging on every word.

At this point, it seems likely that even Prodigy and Havoc, the duo that make up the Mobb, are aware of the exceptional nature of their landmark album, titling their new album The Infamous...Mobb Deep and putting a vintage photo on the cover. They've even gone so far as to package it with a second disc featuring outtakes and alternate cuts from the sessions that produced that earlier album. This can cut both ways: obviously, fans will want to hear the new old stuff, seeking another hit of that grimy goodness. On the other hand, the contrast between the archival material and the new tracks can make it hard to hear the latter on their own terms. The Infamous... is also their first album together in eight years and can be seen as a restart for the veterans, having weathered a beef that put them on hiatus for a while.

So, starting with the sonics, what are they giving us here? Overall, the album has a boxy, plastic sound with a spare, minimalist vibe. If a DJ weren't available, they could probably perform these songs using one of those old Sears organs with the built-in drum machine. This is not really a bad thing as Havoc, and the other producers they worked with weave some intriguing variations on this minimalist template.

The first song, Taking You Off Here, gets things off to a gritty start with barbed wire guitars, spooky organ, and a spliced in drum break. Prodigy and Havoc spit their tough talk with vigor but no standout lines. Say Something marries Vincent Price keyboards to that classic ticky-tack beat from Al Green's I'm Glad You're Mine, and has the rappers leaning into their verses. Prodigy especially mixes up his cadence to keep things interesting but the ultimate message is enumerated by Havoc: "Party after party, bitch, sticking to what got me rich."
Get Down has a funky hook from Prodigy and a guest spot from Snoop who sounds a bit less lazy than his other recent bars, while the lusher Timeless raises the tempo a little to explain that Mobb Deep is both timeless and priceless. "H (i.e. Havoc) the reason I'm dope now/I told him 'my brother I got this, we got this,'" Prodigy raps in a nice moment of brotherly love. In fact, they do sound like they're together on this album - you can imagine them trading verses on the same studio mic.

Like a lot late-career hip hop albums, most of the songs focus lyrically on how great they are, using violent or aspirational imagery to define their dominance. Most of time, this works OK as the energy is there and the beats are good. But this means when they turn their craft on another subject it stands out.

This is the case with Low, which is also the only song to feature a sung hook (a trend partially pioneered by Mobb Deep on Temperature's Rising) by Mack Wilds, a former cast member of The Wire now plying his trade in R'n'B. Prodigy and Havoc each take a verse to dissect love affairs gone wrong, one with his wife's best friend and the other with his best friend's widow. "Seems like a daytime soap or a movie on Lifetime/But, nah, this real life, it hurts," Prodigy raps, and they each add enough nuance and detail to put some meat on the familiar scenarios. As Havoc says, "It's more than just physical, 'cause mentally you stimulate me/And if I ain't up on it you just educate me." While there's still a thrill to the way they describe violent encounters, hearing them limn emotional ones provides a rush of a different kind.

Low falls in the middle of the album and the rest of the album reverts back to the braggadocio, with Legendary's upful attitude and a strong feature by Bun B making it the best of the lot. A few bonus tracks compile recent singles, including the gloriously moody Waterboarding and the rhythmically tricky Get It Forever.

The Infamous... is well above the fans-only cash grab it could have been but a couple of notches below a classic. While there's nothing here to tarnish the legacy, Prodigy's recent solo album Albert Einstein hits the heights more consistently.

Now, about that bonus disc...it consists of outtakes and alternate versions from the 1994 sessions that produced The Infamous, along with a couple short radio appearances from back then. The result? Instantaneous head nodding. It's got that murk, that insidious groove, that undeniable swing that made the earlier album so incredible. Mobb Deep were just on fire in the studio back then. So it's pure pleasure, more of the "raw, uncut" on which they built their rep. No doubt, Prodigy especially is technically a better rapper now, with a nimble pinpoint precision that has him toying with inflection and tempo line by line and sometimes word by word. But the younger Mobb had something really special - whether it was down to hunger or even a certain amateurism that breaks rules with impunity - something that still resonates today. It's like witnessing the forging of a mighty steel blade. There's heat, waste, and hard lessons learned, but the product is built to stand the tests of time and tribulation. Survival of the fittest - only the strong survive.