Sharing the Fetish

I don’t have as many CDs as some people, but perhaps I have more than I should (do I really need 6 recordings of the “Ring” cycle?). Of course, there’s always more that I need (yes, I do). A special thrill for me, and yes it is a thrill, is getting those first recordings with the new year’s copyright mark on them.

So it was a bit of a thrill to get two new releases from New Amsterdam Records earlier this month, Gravity and Air from the guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee and QQQ’s Unpacking the Trailer . . .To further the metaphor, these recordings add to an interesting catalogue that so far is managing to navigate a tricky and subtle route through varied styles without turning music making and listening into nothing more than a mere fetish of “eclecticism.”

The guitarist recording features mostly his own compositions and his superb playing and musicianship. It grips the listener immediately, with a skillful rendition of Bach’s Predude in D Minor, BWV 999 (in video above), moving immediately to five of Lee’s own variations on Bach. It’s audacious and effective; part of the power is that the classical guitar has a tremendously intimate quality, inherent in part, I think, to the closeness of the body and the sense of physical projection directly from the performer. This is captured on recordings as well, which are necessarily close-miked. Lee capture’s the ear immediately with the sound of shared intimacy, and then proceeds through a series of imaginative, skillful variations that are clearly grounded in their formal Baroque antecedents; Lee is a master of contrapuntal playing and builds on that as each variation gradually moves away from counterpoint into more abstract, improvisatory playing. The music is intriguing and satisfying, opening new questions that seek answer within the piece.

A respite from the intensity of the variations is a chamber work with Janus, a fantasia that is listenable, but not of the same caliber. The music takes a bit of time to find itself, and the interior exploration is less far-reaching and interesting than inherent in solo variations. The record concludes with a suite based on Scordatura, or the method of retuning strings – this regains the pleasure and intensity of the variations, with the added intrigue of a new, bluesy sound. Lee is a superior guitarist and this is his strength, writing music that focuses on what can be done with and expressed through the guitar, melodically, harmonically, rhythmically. The best of the music on the disc is the best of classical guitar music, a tradition with extraordinarily deep roots and vast areas for exploration. Lee balances both in his playing and composing.

Unpacking the Trailer . . . is hard to label, other than saying it’s deeply wonderful. The group is led by Dan Trueman playing the Hardanger fiddle, with it’s pleasantly nasal, harmonically complex sound. The music has a folk and bluegrass base- it’s a string band – but the drum kit adds a completely new dimension of beat and rhythm. It’s a complex addition; Jason Treuting’s playing is at the point where minimalism and progressive rock elide, and the flavor is part Steve Reich and part Yes. Yes, Yes. Now, this combination may seem frightening to some of you, but the band pulls it off effortlessly. The key points in the matter are method and taste. The method is worn lightly, with an emphasis on playing music rather than proving what kind of tricky combinatory meters can be juxtaposed. This speaks to the folk music method, of putting together a piece of music by playing it for each other and adding to it, preparing by creating. And this is a band of musicians with excellent taste, who play with great musicality and expression. Describing the means of the record in no means limns the beauty of it. It’s a simple beauty, but deeply satisfying and full of emotional power. The melodies are both limpid and lapidary, and the sound of the Norwegian fiddle is the star, fascinating and pleasing. Many of the tunes start from simple patterns and construct broad and dramatic horizons, like “Spring,” while others are lively and complex dances, like “Happy ’til you Hurt Yourself.” The last tune, “Ghostwalk,” brings is gorgeous and express the feeling of a hard-earned, valuable and ultimately satisfying lesson. Like The Crooked Jades, recent record, Unpacking the Trailer . . . provides the sensation of a subtle and complex journey, brining it home to a true rest, with the sensation of having been changed along the way. The CD is a testament to the metaphysics of Sonata form. It’s a gem.

Both these releases are available now, and there’s a showcase concert this Friday at Joe’s pub. Listen, listen, go, go . . .


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.


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