So You Noticed?

Yes, the way this site currently appears is ridiculously out of date and apparently hopelessly fucked up!

You’re not wrong, but I think (believe, fervently hope?) that this is temporary. This is a hosting issue, fortunately timed during the summer lull. Look for it to end sometime between, well, right now, and the end of August.

Back atcha

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Miles Davis Week – Day 3: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Day 3 of Bitches Brew blogging

333sound

TO CELEBRATE THE UPCOMING RELEASE OF OUR 110TH 33/13 ON  BITCHES BREWWE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE THIRD INSTALLMENT OF MILES DAVIS WEEK BY AUTHOR GEORGE GRELLA JR. !

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Jazz history is the story of musicians and bands and the records they made, and it can be charted as a family tree. Jazz is an oral tradition, and even though it has now been heavily institutionalized (fundamental to the music’s economic survival, but not necessarily an aesthetic benefit), it remains so, and is pretty much the only still-living thing we have in the West that approximates the Homeric tradition.

From the very beginning, musicians led bands and made records, and the sidemen went on to lead their own bands and make their own records, and on and on. Miles is arguably unequalled in his importance as a bandleader in jazz history, going by his sidemen and collaborators: Lee…

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Miles Davis Week – Day 2: The Lost Quintet

Day 2 of Miles Davis blogging

333sound

TO CELEBRATE THE UPCOMING RELEASE OF OUR 110TH 33/13 ON  BITCHES BREWWE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE SECOND INSTALLMENT OF MILES DAVIS WEEK BY AUTHOR GEORGE GRELLA JR. !

One of the compelling mysteries about Miles Davis’s music in the late 1960s is how got from here to there, from the formally free, but still idiomatic music of Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro, to In a Silent Way, then Bitches Brew. Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro are transitional in that they add soul, funk and rock elements to what Miles was doing, and Filles starts exploring extended duration, but the music is within reach of what others like Lee Morgan and Herbie Hancock had been doing contemporaneously.

The key is there on Filles, although the record doesn’t really sound like it—two of the five tracks…

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Miles Davis Week – Day 1: Music To Read Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew By?

Day 1 of my Miles Davis blogging

333sound

TO CELEBRATE THE UPCOMING RELEASE OF OUR 110TH 33/13 ON  BITCHES BREWWE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE VERY FIRST INSTALLMENT OF MILES DAVIS WEEK BY AUTHOR GEORGE GRELLA JR. !

Music to read Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew by?

Maybe so. 33-1/3 books, who have their own Spotify account, asked me if I wanted to put a playlist together for them as part of Bitches Brew week here at 333SOUND. Of course I said yes, I’m no fool. Then I started to put it together. Countless man hours later …

https://open.spotify.com/user/gtra1n/playlist/0zXQ4QVj8NtnhrwHJFCo31

This is actually the third version, once revised. What began as a mix of music that come before and after Bitches Brew, from Miles and others, turned into (after seemingly endless listening and hemming and hawing) a limited playlist that relates to my book chapter “Directions in Music by Miles Davis.” The purpose of that chapter and…

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Holding Your Breath?

You’ll be able to let it out soon. Yes, it’s been, um, quite awhile since my last post here! In the annals of meaningless organization, I’m channeling ongoing observations consistently over at the tumblr site, and you can read my weekly column, The Drift, and set your watch by it. I’m focussing on long form pieces for the blog here (and also developing some new technical capabilities) and I’m in the middle of something comprehensive, with more to follow. Stay tuned, it won’t be much longer, and check the other sites.

Thanks

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Comedy And Madness

If it wasn’t for comedy and madness, would opera exist?  What is it that could drive people away from speech and towards singing in such a way that would not only be acceptable as a premise but natural?  It takes a certain level of absurdity . . .

 

I’m not mocking the form, I love it and I write it – there are things that can be done dramatically in opera that are impossible in any other medium, like simultaneity of action in which the characters express themselves while musically relating to one another, or the way that the music can go beyond the words a character sings, telling us more about that figure than they know abut themselves.  And sung narrative is at the core of human civilization, embodied by Homer but far older than his work and found in cultures across the globe.

 

And because I love opera, I’m realistic about it.  All that singing . . . it’s absurd.  So the absurd stories and ideas tend to work, hence comedy and madness.  Tragedy, yes, but tragedy in opera is almost too easy, just as tragedy in music is far easier to convey successfully than happiness and humor – think of the sense of strained levity in the final movements of Mahler’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, with their relentless major keys.

 

Madness is not to be confused with mad scenes.  Ideally, those serve a dramatic purpose, but in the big houses today, the prevailing focus is on star power, and mad scenes have become something to base marketing campaigns around rather than an integrated, dramatic moment.  It’s mad to sing opera, the fans are mad for the diva, watch her ham it up as she goes madder than Crazy Eddie!

 

In the overall repertoire, there’s few operas devoted entirely to madness – the most famous is Wozzeck, and it’s possible to view the Ring Cycle and Don Giovanni as dramatizations of the struggle between lunacy and lucidity – and even fewer comic operas (I’ll leave operettas to the torturers in “Bananas”).  New York City Opera has started the Spring portion of their season with one of the great comic operas, L’Elisir d’Amore, and an evening-length program of madness that, beyond it’s considerable achievements, stands as a landmark in the realization of dramatic music.

 

“Particularly the early, funny ones . . .”

 

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All pictures © Carol Rosegg


Donizetti is the great middle-brow pleasure of opera, and he’s both over and undervalued.  His bel canto style is exemplary, his music often beautiful and his drama propulsive.  This all makes him easy to take in, so to many people he’s the beginning and end of opera and to others he’s just cheese.  He was a skillful craftsman who produced good works that are still mainstays because they give such pleasure.  The style is both dated and enduring, and what I appreciate most about Donizetti is how his indulgence in the sheer beauty of singing is balanced with solid characterization.  He made comedy, and it is pretty.

 

L’Elisir D’Amore is, along with Il Barbiere di Seviglia, the finest comic opera for both music and humor.  It has a light touch but enough humanity to not evaporate with bland effervescence.  The City Opera production, from Jonathan Miller, understands and respects the work.  Miller borrows the diner setting quite freely from Peter Sellers production of Cosí fan tutte, and it works better here.  Where Mozart’s comedy has a bitter point to make, Donizetti is working with basic young love, the only conflict is between Adina’s two suitors, the braggart and soldier Belcore, and the bumbling gas jockey (in this production), Nemorino, mediated by the conman Dr. Dulcamara.

 

Ensemble works like these are City Opera’s bread and butter, where they consistently deploy deep and talented casts of relatively unknown singers, in this case the debuts of David Lomelli as Nemorino, José Adán Pérez as Belcore and Stefania Dovhan as Adina.  They are not stars, and partly because of that and also because young singers get far better stage and acting training nowadays, what you get is a performance that tells the story, that entertains, amuses and touches.  It looks great and it sounds great.

 

It really works.  This is an opera about a transformation, the hero Nemorino going from sad sack to almost rakish.  The tale is told through the music and by Lomelli on stage.  Nemorino’s music is simple and choppy at the start, where he sings about his love for the woman who won’t give him the time of day, Adina.  He slowly gains personal and musical confidence through the ministrations of Dulcamara’s ‘tussin, and is an entirely different figure after the great aria, “Una furtiva lagrima.”  Lomelli sang this very well with his youthful, slightly heady voice – though with some curiously missed intervals in the aria – and acted it even bette, going from befuddled Stan Laurel to swaggering Elvis Presley.  He’s not a star by name, but the evening revolves around his performance and he delivers the goods, and it was appealing that, during the extended ovation, he couldn’t in the end keep a straight face.

 

Pérez is charismatic and funny, he walks from his waist, his torso pitched backwards, his legs swiveling stiffly like a toy soldier which is perfect, of course, and he projects easily and confidently.  Nistico is the veteran in the cast and his voice is a little underpowered for the largish house, but his acting is easily comic without the old-fashioned exaggerations of opera and the newer ones of television.  His Dulcamara is not the blowhard I’ve seen in other productions, he’s quick and shifty, eager to sell and get the hell out of town.  His apposite number is conductor Brad Cohen, whose take on the music is clean, brisk and unassuming.

 

Dovhan has the hardest role: Adina is vain, cruel and spiteful.  Nemorino must love her for something other than her looks, and that means whoever plays the role has to be inherently sympathetic and emotionally attractive.  She has a lovely, strong voice and looks smashing in her blond wig, but she doesn’t project that internal nature the characterization relies on.  The difference is slight but important; where Lomelli gives us personal transformation as a process, Dovhan goes from one attractive and irritating state to another, more attractive and sympathetic one, in the space of Adina’s response to “Una furtiva lagrima,” the aria “Prendi, per mei sei libero.”  She does so beautifully in that space, however.  But this is less than criticism, I’m merely pointing out that the production is in no way required to prove that comic operas are the greatest of operas, merely that they be fully entertaining and satisfying, which this L’Elisir is.

 

Tales of extraordinary madness

 

The mad operas, on the other hand, entertain in the way something fascinating, troubling and involving entertains, and make an argument, if not for the status and stature of the individual parts, then for the opera house as a place for deeply affective, thought-provoking art.  There is madness, deep madness, on display at City Opera, and it comes in the form of three monodramas; Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Neither, a collaboration between Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett, and the stage premiere of John Zorn’s La Machine de l’Être.

 

The production, by Michael Counts in his City Opera debut, integrates all three works, via staged segue that connects the end of La Machine to the beginning of Erwartung, and then by the use of identifiable players and stage language in Neither, which comes after intermission.  It’s a connected journey through the impenetrable, unknowable landscape of madness, and it is compelling.  The result is flawed, the flaws are a lingering irritant but are overpowered by the strength of the material and the performances.  The flaws prevent perfection and that is entirely appropriate for dramatic ideas that by their nature cannot be circumscribed or resolved.

 

The problems come from a strange inability on the part of Counts and his crew to fully realize their own ideas.  All the elements are there: set design, costumes, fundamental conception, but some of the specific results are atrocious.  In the opening La Machine, the ensemble is clothed in full hijab with only the eyes showing.  A couple, model types, remove these outer garments in part or full from selected figures, including soprano Anu Komsi (in her City Opera debut) and a man wearing a red suit.  Later, this same pair removes the hijabs from Kara Shay Thomson, also making her debut in Erwartung, and her ensemble.  In Neither, the mixed ensemble is in matching black suits and white shirts

 

It’s simple stagecraft and needs to lead to something else to work.  What comes out of it, though, is mostly terrible direction.  The blocking is amateurish, literally ‘blocky,’ chunks of people moving from one point to another or standing still.  The singers go from left to right to center and back again, with almost no usage of the upstage-downstage axis (I won’t entirely fault Counts here, I realized during the performance that pretty much every opera I see staged seems to exist on some artificial two-dimensional surface, as if a “Flatland” virus infects directors once they pass through the stage door).  The choreography, by Ken Roht, is incomprehensibly bad, a series of steps and, mainly, hand gestures that have been adapted from Janet Jackson videos.  For the daring that George Steel showed in making this program, and the extremely high quality of the music and the performances (the orchestra and conductor George Manahan play three difficult, un-idiomatic works with utter confidence and musicality), this seems almost offensively disappointing – neither the audience nor City Opera got their money’s worth at the premiere.

 

But in terms of the music, the singing, the playing, the ideas, they got an unforgettable, unquantifiable success.  Zorn’s piece is based on drawings made by Antonin Artaud during his institutionalization.  The work Artaud produced during this period, including his swan-song, Pour en Finir avec le Judgement de Dieu, is incomprehensible and while many hold it in high regard it is just as likely that it is utter nonsense.  But that’s the beautiful point of Zorn’s score and conception.  The piece is for orchestra and singer, who has sounds but no text, and is the finest example of his notated music for other ensembles.  The score incorporates his aesthetic of musical jump-cuts and switchbacks with exceptional skill and conception: musical events come and go quickly, like sub-atomic particles bubbling up from the fabric of space, while the overall texture flows with the sensuousness of Debussy.  It’s the most richly, complexly beautiful music he’s made, and the vocal line on top is the most beautiful of all.  It holds longer textures, soars and swoops, makes great idiomatic use of the voice, and is very, very difficult.  Komsi sang with great tone, strength and phrasing, only momentarily, and understandably, taxed by the music’s demands.

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As she sang, comic-book thought balloons rose from the stage and settle above the heads of the man in red and another figure.  These were screens, and on them appeared animation that broke down Artaud’s drawings into pieces, then recreated them.  In a piece where the composer deliberately offers no stage direction, this was a brilliant and imaginative effect.  I’m not sure what Counts thinks of the piece, and of Artaud, but he avoided the clichés of dramatic madness and let us see, in motion, the material that led to the music.  This is perhaps the first true, essential work of multi-media because it does nothing more than gives us the core concept via all its extant means.  Eventually, an image sets the man’s thought bubble arising out of sight, and as he reaches for he it also rises past the top of the stage, disappearing into his own mind.  The final notes are met with the image of Artaud’s eyes captured briefly in time, before their screen flashes into flame.  In Zorn’s work, nothing is fixed, the skittering mess of madness is captured in dazzling, almost apprehensible detail, before it literally vanishes.

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Erwartung connects to this in two ways.  One is via another brilliant stroke of staging. where Thomson has her own thought bubble/screen, on which we see a gorgeous abstraction of the change of seasons through flowers and leaves, easing us into the autumnal mind of the character.  Musically, though Zorn’s voice eschews atonal rigor, the shifting, almost pointillistic musical structure is a close cousin of Schoenberg’s own depiction of a mind muttering to itself.  I am no fan of his dramatic work, I think his method denatures meaning from words, but Thomson is such an expressive, forceful performer that I was gripped by expectation every moment.  Counts makes this a tale of a woman who not only wonders what has happened to her lover, if he is dead, but who has actually killed him, with his body lying on stage, impaled by a knife, and used as a prop.  As she sings, she is accompanied by several versions of herself, like small-bore Furies.  Again, the blocking and choreography is dreadful, enlivened by a moment when one drags the body across the stage by its feet, deadened by a dull, repetitive and predictable descent of each into the stage depths.  And yet, toward the end, the body rises in the most remarkable physical feat I have seen onstage, the performer Jonathan Nosan coming up first via his waist, from there pivoting upright like a human puppet dragged upright by its master.  It is breathtaking and makes dramatic sense, as he embraces Thomson, and she eventually pulls out the dagger.  She’s mad, and we cannot know what is dream and what is real, if anything is, but she has found some kind of peace.  This is in contrast to Zorn, where he accepts what is out of his control – in his company Schoenberg’s conservatism comes through, his need to bring everything back into acceptable bourgeois bounds.

 

There is a powerful stage element that distracts from the blocking and choreography in Neither, the amazing lighting design by Robert Wierzel.  His colors are clashing, somehow simultaneously bright and washed out, evoking a queasy, compelling, unsettled visual madness that is some kind of combination of an insane asylum disco and “The Corbomite Maneuver.”  The light is a perfect complement to Feldman’s involving, disturbing stasis of the mind.  Beckett is the poker faced arena where active agency and nihilism fuse, producing absurdity.  His brand is not screwball, it’s melancholic, meditative, creating an inner universe.  Is there a better composer/librettist pair?  Beckett’s mature narratives are separated from any notion of reality, and Feldman’s score is equally untethered from the musical reality of structure, elements that mark beginning, end and intervening large and small scale phrases.  The music not only drifts into being, but drifts from pitch to its microtonal variants.  It has a color and a physical quality: imagine standing on the beach, battered by rough surf, staring up at a solid gray sky where tenuous clouds, so misshapen they barely have definition, float at such a slow pace that the eye cannot discern the path they follow, if any.  Add to this the soprano line, sung amazingly well by Cyndia Sieden, that sits implacably in the upper register, just short of a screech.  Seiden still articulates the words, and the demand from composer and librettist seems almost mad itself.  This is a character trapped in a null-state, a prison of her own intellect and imagination.  The madness is almost voluptuous, as if the disease in the mind can be handled and caressed enough that familiarity turns loathing into something close to love.  It is the dreadful shudder of both fear and longing, the experience of opening one’s eyes to finally see that thing that was long thought too horrible to confront.

 

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This is the realm of music and drama as expressions and explorations of the most difficult aspects of life.  Where comic opera not only entertains but connects us through simple human bonds to the characters and then to the rest of the audience, madness like this, not a gesture but a world, connects us to our questions and even fears.  We wonder, as we not only listen and watch but find ourselves avidly attentive to what is unfolding, if this makes sense to us, and as we seek to find a way to unravel and understand these works, we thrill.  “Monodramas” places us at the edge of where we fear to step, and asks if we wish to leap.

“Produced And Performed By Thieves And Vagabonds”

Now here’s a project to get behind.

I’m very wary of these projects where the setting of a story to music is promiscuously called an “opera” – it’s because unlike a lot of people who love themselves for going to the Opera, I love opera, and I write it.  Believe me, you would never do anything so completely futile as writing opera if you didn’t love it.

And that love would be deeply unhealthy if it did not have a good measure of irreverence, and that’s why I’m excited about this.  Ergo Phizmiz!  Flann O’Brien!  The Third Policeman!  A thrilling and quite probably dangerous combination of complete lack of respect for everything decent to bourgeois values and the commodification of culture (not to mention instrument makers, technology, religion and science).  I am in-fucking-love!

Seriously, Phizmiz makes great music by eviscerating and then rebuilding every cliché of pop that has ever existed.  His work, especially with People Like Us, is a joyful balance of sincerity and mockery, and is totally musical.

O’Brien is one of my favorite writers and one of the greats of Modern literature, stylish, incredibly smart and screamingly funny.  In a way it’s a shame that Phizmiz finds himself having to beg on the Intertubes, it’s a contrast between great artistry and meaningless notoriety.  While I’m a great lover of New York City Opera, I must temper that with my irreverence for their picking up the opera, such as it is, of Rufus Wainwright.  There’s a commercial logic to it, but I don’t see how their mission and quality is served by promoting music and drama, such as it is, that is clichéd to the point of bombast.  City Opera is about music drama, not about the stars standing around singing while the audience evaluates their costumes and those of the people sitting around them.  I’m not confident about the results – but will gladly admit if I am completely misguided.  Still, someone needs to produce The Third Policeman, and that someone appears to be us.

UPDATED: Now with more snarky links!

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1912

Axe Men

Pablo Picasso; Guitar, 1912

[Get a companion podcast to this post, with many selected cuts from the discs reviewed]

Sometime in the twentieth century, especially post Word War II, the guitar replaced and far surpassed the piano as the ubiquitous household instrument. While this has been a damaging thing for classical music, it’s probably been a beneficial thing in general. It’s nothing but good for people to get together and make music, and there’s nothing like a guitar in every garage to get the music going. The instrument does have two distinct advantages; in its electric form, it’s easy to get good and interesting sounds out of it even if you can’t play it all that well, and it’s also far easier to break away from the tunings of the tempered keyboard and explore different ideas of harmony.

The guitar, or banjo, was a part of jazz from the start, and there have been great guitarists in every generation, from Eddie Lang to Charlie Christian to Jim Hall to Grant Green to John McLaughlin. The piano was still the mainstay harmony instrument in jazz groups through those decades, however, and even the popularity and influence of McLaughlin and Hendrix didn’t change that much in the post-Fusion era. But something did move, eventually. I can’t break it down statistically, but over the last few years the number of new jazz releases with guitar in the band has been steadily outweighing those with piano. The six-string axe is now the harmony instrument of choice in contemporary jazz.

Pat Metheny is certainly behind this, though it’s not as if he engineered a conspiracy. His virtuosity, popular appeal, and shimmering, lovely chorused sound was a pervasive influence throughout the 1980s, but the current guitar sound has more to do with Bill Frisell and John Scofield – with a touch of Marc Ribot – who stand as the two poles of the styles I hear, Frisell’s impressionistic colors and Americana on one end, Scofield’s rock-ish blues and funk on the other. The ur-moment was probably the release of Marc Johnson’s first Bass Desires disc, the summer of 1986. Here was a jazz group in the form of a rock band – two electric guitars, bass and drums – playing a smart, hip, tough contemporary brand of the music that touched on everything from modes to country and slow, elegant swing. Frisell buzzed and slashed, Scofield finger-picked and got down, and now the landscape is populated with terrific guitarist, representing the music on five new CDs.

The first under review, As You Like, the debut recording from the group BANN, is firmly in the contemporary guitar jazz tradition. In sound and style, the disc sounds like a continuation of Scofield’s great 1990 Blue Note release, Time On My Hands . The new recording isn’t an imitation at all, it’s a veteran band – on tour since 2007 with Seamus Blake on tenor sax, Jay Anderson playing bass, Oz Noy on guitar and Adam Nussbaum on drums – that has merely set out on the trail of the earlier CD and then surpassed it.

This is state-of-the-art contemporary small group jazz, a document of a group that simply plays flat-out beautifully. Jazz as practiced has a built-in structural problem, the seemingly unvarying way of playing a tune: head-solos-head. It gets monotonous and relies on the quality of inspiration, which can be inconsistent even with the best musicians. BANN makes a virtue of this cliché through the simple and effective means of altering the accompaniment behind the soloists. You can hear it on their cover of Monk’s “Played Twice;” after the tune is, um, played twice, Blake takes the first solo and the rhythm section immediately shifts into a reggae beat, followed by swing, then double-time swing. It’s not revolutionary, it’s just effective at keeping everything interesting and fresh by giving both soloist and listener a variety of musical ideas to work with. It’s also the kind of thing that the best working ensembles do.

As You Like is solid but unspectacular at first, opening with Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” then the Monk, then a lovely version of David Crosby’s “Guinnevere.” The ninth and last track is an awesome take on Joe Henderson’s “Isotope,” and by then the group has really opened up on a series of original tunes that bring this CD to a whole other plane. The material is excellent, the kind of music that is so deeply embedded in the jazz tradition that it sounds like you’ve been hearing musicians play it for decades, even as you feel the freshness. It’s notable that the first of these tracks, “Will Call,” sounds like a bonus cut from Time On My Hands, yet not derivative at all. What’s happening is that, having decided to put together a group that plays a certain style of electric jazz, they just play it so damn well. Blake is one of the most fluid, coherent soloist around, digging into the harmonies and spinning out melodies with equal relish and accomplishment, every note and phrase making sense. Noy is very much in the Scofield mode, down to the crunchy, skronky sound, and adds an excellent ear for hip, funky colors, sharp rhythmic chops and brilliantly structured solos. Everything he does on the title track is an exceptional example of his skill and imagination. Anderson has the subtle drive of Dave Holland, and I love the way he hints at “Someone To Watch Over Me” in his solo that opens the exquisite ballad “Days of Old,” while Nussbaum is a superb ensemble drummer, swinging, musical, really bringing all the elements together. The band articulates different styles, including a touch of Western Swing on “At Sundown,” but this is not clever eclecticism. They have their sound, a balance of tough, fun and cool, and they can speak it identifiably in more than one palette. This is the best straight-ahead small group jazz CD I’ve heard since Henderson’s classic So Near, So Far , now almost twenty years old, and simply a great CD that you will listen to again and again. A best of the year pick.

Closer to the Frisell point on the axis, but again not in slavish imitation, is Chris Parrello. It’s not in the use of any electronic washes or his guitar sound in particular, which tends toward a more jagged side. Where I hear it is in the desire to express the dream state of the American imagination, the alchemy of Appalachia, Harlem, Death Valley, Detroit and Surf City U.S.A. that exists in no place except the vast expanse of our minds and hearts where we wish for things to be. It’s in the slow beat and lilting arpeggiation of “Anymore,” from his eponymous debut CD with his band Things I Wonder. This is a remarkable recording, and an exciting example of how fresh and fine the state of contemporary jazz is, how musicians are expanding this still young music into new territory while maintaining its core values.

It starts with the voluptuous pleasure of sound. Orchestration is usually a haphazard aspect of jazz, at best, but Parrello has clearly put together his ensemble of guitar, voice sax, bass and drums – and the additional colors of cello, trumpet and pedal steel guitar – with an ear towards the power and expressivity of timbre. The opening track “Choices” begins delicately and lyrically, with a rising harmonic rhythm, lightly propulsive cymbals, a pithy melody for soprano sax and Karlie Bruce’s evocative wordless vocals. It’s just gorgeous. Then the music darkens and toughens up considerably, developing a thrilling, insinuating, aggressive quality to frame the sax solo from Ian Young and Bruce’s affectingly hostile/erotic vocalizing. Parrello’s own thoughts on the music concern whether or not it’s jazz, but I think tracks like this, “Open Out” and “In Spite of You” are certainly jazz. They don’t swing per se, but the thing about swing is that it’s actual hey-dey not only came a generation after jazz was created but also didn’t last long. No one needs to swing to play jazz anymore, and they never did.

The band does play more than jazz on the disc, though. While other musicians have made covering Radiohead tunes a standard part of the contemporary repertoire, Things I Wonder is the first jazz group I’ve heard that actually makes their original music somewhat in the style of that band. Bruce is a big part of it, she emulates Thom Yorke a bit in timbre and her half-articulated phrasing, and Parrello is the other part in the way he adapts the rock group’s harmonic grandeur. There is material on the disc, especially the closing three song stretch of “Undone,” “My War” and “Welcome Home” that is firmly pop/rock in style, and is terrific, musically smart and played with bracing power. Parrello always sounds like his own man, incorporating his influences into an individual voice, keeping everything grounded in his expansively American sound. There are moments when he and the band fall back into stylistic and compositional mannerisms – “In Spite of You” leans heavily on “Anymore,” and Bruce threatens to drown the short “She Laughs” under a lugubrious delivery – but these are just as much quirks of an artist developing a powerful style. A beguiling, fascinating recording and a stunning debut.

You could describe the still relatively young guitarist Samo Salamon as a protégé of Scofield; he’s a long-time friend of the older musician and a former student. He favors a similar guitar sound, one that has a bite from blues and rock, but his voice as a musician is his own. He’s appeared on at least a dozen recordings as a sideman and a leader, in the company of Mark Helias, Gerald Cleaver, Mark Turner, Tony Malaby, Tyshawn Sorey and others, and his new trio disc, Almost Almond , has him accompanied by a great rhythm section of Drew Gress on bass and Tom Rainey on drums.

Salamon strikes an excellent balance between the expected and the surprising. His compositions have structural and harmonic rhythm quirks that at first blush seem ill-conceived, but which after a few more bars, or at the end of the chorus, prove themselves to be his own personal and highly successful stamp on jazz logic. The disc opens with “Monkey Hands,” and almost immediately you’re wondering if those chords have any idea where they’re going, then you realize they brought you exactly where they should via a refreshingly indirect route. His original way of putting his music together makes Almost Almond more than just a standard blowing date. Gress and Rainey are involved partners, expressing the compositions, supporting the leader, working with each other and adding their own deeply musical expression.

The guitarist is the star, though, and he is a star. He is a tremendous player, articulating each note and line with clarity and force, no matter the velocity. He’s also an interesting player, able to say many things via many means, from Pat Martino like hard-bop phrases to rubato chords to abstract noise-making. I love his balance between structure and freedom, the sense that if he needs to go outside the guidelines of the tune to say what he has to say, then he will do so without hesitation and with complete artistic conviction. It’s not a common quality in jazz, where a lot of players go outside the changes for dramatic effect rather than having their musical idea forces them there, and it’s exciting and satisfying.

There are no real standout moments on Almost Almond, because the whole is so consistently fine. All the musicians are deeply involved in the music, the tunes themselves are interesting to hear for themselves, not just as vehicles for improvisation, and the improvising is top-notch. It’s a generous amount of music at over an hour, and the sense that the players are consistently exploring the music and making discoveries is so strong that the whole sounds like an integrated work. Compositionally, it’s not, but Salamon’s voice is so strong that he creates that impression. It’s an impressive and satisfying CD.

From a totally different aesthetic comes Skúli Sverrisson’s Sería II (an accompanying I is not yet available). Sverrisson has worked with a wide range of jazz and creative pop musicians, and may be most familiar as the guitarist in Jim Black’s fabulous instrumental rock band Alas No Axis. So the sound of Sería II will probably come as a deep surprise to many people.

This is a unique, lovely and alluring record, one that stands outside the regular streams of jazz, rock and pop music and belongs more immediately to cinema. It’s clearly inspired by the film music of Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota and has the soundtrack quality of painting a visual image. That image is abstract, though, there’s no particular narrative or scene related to the cuts, and I think that’s a strength. Ordinary film music makes sense and has power only in combination with the visual element, while excellent film music stands on its own, create a sensation that belongs to a film we need to create in our minds’ eye.

This is excellent film music, and it’s also something more. Technically, Sverrisson builds textures more than tunes, with the foreground melodies and background harmonies and rhythms compressed together into two dimensional space. That has something to do with the evocative quality of the music, it draws us into its world. It’s mood music, but rather than underlining what we’re supposed to be feeling about a scene, it offers a truly human juxtaposition of many moods, some steady, others mercurial, all eliding with one another. What seems simple, and perhaps even unambitious, turns out to be a very deep emotional expression. This disc is guaranteed to fill you with a mysterious longing, even heartache. It’s the soundtrack to “The Phantom Empire,” the imaginary universe in our heads made up of the fragments of the universal culture of cinema the modern world shares, the idea that in great part we have learned how to live, feel and relate to each other through the shared knowledge of Fred Astaire, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Godfather. ” The cinema is where our collective dreams are brought to life, and Sverrisson has made his aural version of that experience.

While Sería played on the stereo one recent afternoon, I looked out the window to see the vapor trail of a jet high in the blue sky. I couldn’t help it, the music made me think there was someone on that plane, heading home, leaving a loved one thousands of miles away, perhaps forever. It was a scene from a movie I had never seen and seen a thousand times, and the music was perfect for it. That’s the deep and mysterious power of this CD.

unofficial, but pretty nice

Back in the shared reality of life, Bill Frisell’s longtime bass player Kermit Driscoll, thirty years a sideman, has released his solo debut, Reveille . He leads a band with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, pianist Kris Davis and Frisell manning the axe. It sounds like a jolly reunion!

Driscoll was a vital part of Frisell’s early recordings, and his ringing note that ends the gorgeously wrenching “Alien Prints (For D. Sharpe)” on the guitarist’s 1987 masterpiece, Lookout For Hope , is one of my enduring musical memories. So close is the association that Reveille could easily be identified as a Frisell recording. He’s the lead voice, the main soloist, and the style of music, a jazzy, rocking, countrified sound, full of good humor, interplay and some real getting down, is familiar to any Frisell fan. That’s no criticism, just a reflection of what a great fit the bassist and guitarist are.

Not all the details of the disc are as fine a fit. Davis is a fine player, but both in the arrangements and in a lot of the soloing she doesn’t have the same amount and type of space as Frisell. Her solo turns are fine, but the guitar so dominates the sound and style that it’s tough for her to get in a constructive, idiomatic word. Driscoll’s straight-ahead tunes, like “Boomstatz” and “Chicken Reel,” are tasty, but other, more deliberately composed tracks don’t work as well, suffering from both a touch of compositional fussiness, like on “Thank You,” and what sounds like under-rehearsal, as on “Hekete.” Still, once the band gets down to just playing, soloing and working together, the music making is both excellent and a lot of fun. The mild flaws don’t detract substantially from the overall pleasure of the music, which is substantial.

Concerning Horses, As Gifts, And Their Mouths

Courtesy UC San Diego

Classical music is in decent shape, at least in the New York City area, despite the hand wringing from the likes of Greg Sandow. When someone in his position – and he’s literally paid to tell organizations what they are doing wrong and what they should change – says classical music presenters are not engaging the audience that digs “Glee,” I look around at events like the ongoing Tully Scope and wonder what the hell he’s talking about. The opening night concert in particular was packed with sharp and hiply dressed people a generation after mine, people of all races, and even some kids. This for a program of music from Morton Feldman and his personal peers.

Partly, this inability to see the same universe stems from what seems to be two very different ideas about what classical music is. On the one hand, there’s classical music as a body of symphonies, operas and chamber music that was developed through the Romantic era and into the early part of the last century, ending somewhere around 1950. On the other hand, there is the view that classical music is a living, expanding tradition that goes back to the earliest monophonic Western music and continues to develop and renew itself through a process of accumulating knowledge and reworking older ideas and methods in the context of new discoveries and experiences. If classical music is Brahms, and the kids aren’t digging Brahms, then the music has a problem. But it’s a lot more than Brahms – my view is clearly the latter one, and I will go so far as to say, with certainty, that it is objectively correct, while the former view is not only objectively wrong but ahistorical and antithetical to making art.

Feldman’s version of classical music sounds very different than Beethoven, but Beethoven leads logically and directly to Feldman. In fact, it is almost impossible to find a classical musician, no matter how experimental or avant-garde, who is truly outside this stream of time and process. Scelsi is inside it, Lucier is inside it, Stockhausen is inside it. The only figure I can pick who deliberately and successfully placed himself entirely outside this stream was John Cage, and he did so by being less a composer and much more a philosopher, asking questions about the conscious, human means of creating . . . anything. Cage and Feldman were friends, but their ideas are almost in opposition.

In the concert, Steven Schick conducted ICE in the music, including Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4, for radios. One person tunes, one person handles the volume, the piece is made up of the noise that comes out. What is it? Well, it’s whatever you think it is. Having heard it once, the effect is both made and lost, the argument is so deeply incorporated into contemporary musical culture that a performance of it seems like a slightly embarrassing artifact, like hearing your eccentric uncle tell you that same story he’s told you a hundred times before, the one that seems fresh to him and stale to you. Schick conducted with precision and care for the modulations of ‘tempo.’

The rest of the evening had Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments and Jalons from Xenakis in the middle, book ended by Feldman’s mysterious, intensely quiet and gentle solo percussion piece, The King of Denmark, and his late For Samuel Beckett. It’s a measure of the health of classical music, not only that this program was made, not only that ICE played the music with such complete command, but that there are so many phenomenal ensembles dedicated to the classics and the contemporaries that I have the luxury of knowing that ICE has a sound, and a style, and rather than simply being thankful for the chance to hear this music I can be critical about their interpretation. ICE has ridiculously fine precision and clarity, they treat every note, phrase, harmony and rhythm with exactitude and reveal all the details and ideas of the scores they play. This is nothing but good, but I find that it is not sympathetic to Webern to the nth degree. They are a match for that composer’s beautiful precision, but there is an inherent lyricism in his music that is not ICE’s primary point and purpose. Webern, to me, sings, a subtle but major distinction.

I have heard them play Xenakis before, and they make his music sound almost easy, and that makes the music much simpler to hear and grasp. If they don’t quite have the sonic weight and visceral roughness that lesser musicians might emphasize in order to convey the music – and that is important to Xenakis – they make this intellectually daunting work discernible, understandable. Again, it’s a great thing for music that there is more than one way to play Xenakis, and great that I, and you, can have your preferences.

Schick performed the percussion piece himself, in bare feet, and it was like a private, ritualistic dance. This is a tough piece to produce; on recordings it is so quiet and abstract that the distance between composer and listener is vast, in public, the music is so quiet that the normal coughing and shuffling in a hall does great damage to it. The piece also defies standard analysis, and description, it’s like watching and hearing an interior monologue, and Schick was delicately mesmerizing. In the Beckett piece, the combination of ensemble and the bright, dry acoustic of Alice Tully Hall produced a warm, brown sound. I found myself hearing how the instruments fit into the space, and wondering if it wasn’t resonant and soft enough for this beautiful, still music. I concentrated on the woody and reedy balances Schick and the musicians produced, listened to them drift in and out of the texture, the slabs of color wafting towards each other and gently deflecting. And though it felt like no time had passed, the forty-five minutes or so of playing came to an end, having worked their magic with exceptional power.

The Tully Scope 2011 Festival is ongoing through Friday, March 18. See here for events, times and tickets.