Music, Every Day

No fancy preamble, just a collection of reviews of new and newish music, from classical to jazz, between and beyond:

New Bach
Bach wrote dance music. His great solo works for violin and cello are made up of different and very specific type of dances, not in the concert sense that is familiar to us but in the sense that groups of people, often in couples, danced to these different beats and rhythms in specific steps. The history of Western Classical music is the history of developing abstraction, but during the 17th Century music was still connected economically and socially to the gathering of people to dine, drink and dance. The differences with today are substantial ones of style; we go to the disco, we dance as individuals and the music is canned (although arguably of a greater variety of specific beats and rhythms). Dancing with a partner is old-timey, and so is the music for it, like bluegrass and fiddle music – the fiddle has been the staple of the dance band since at least the time of Bach.

Fiddler Dana Lyn and guitarist Rob Moose are trying to make Bach dance again through their duo, Bach Reformed, and their debut CD “In Double” (available on iTunes and eMusic) is one of the surprise pleasures of the year so far. When I first saw this ensemble they were doing simple transcriptions of this music, dividing the melodic line and harmonic accompaniment between them. Since that time, they’ve developed the concept and arrangements into an intriguing mix of old, old-timey and new music and it works. Bach in general works in transcription form since the original music is so beautifully structured (during the annual Bach festival on WKCR, there is a regular segment for Bach transcribed for unusual instruments, like the tuba) and taking dance music and playing it like dances is simple and powerful. At it’s best, Bach Reformed balances an evocative line of playing Bach in a way that is faithful to the idea of baroque dance – in such forms as gavotte, bourée and gigue – and the dance inflections and phrases of bluegrass. The music is not made into bluegrass, nor is bluegrass being played like Bach, they happen simultaneously and in comity and the sensation in the ear is wonderful. The qualities of musicianship that make for good bluegrass playing make for good Bach playing as well; energy, sharp attacks and rhythmic flexibility within phrases and around beats. Bach can take being pushed and pulled with the best of them, and the best Bach solo playing combines the tension and release of time with his inherent tension and release of harmonies.

Lyn’s fiddle sound is enormous and beautiful and she plays with tremendous verve. She really drives the band, which is at times held back from it’s very finest moments by Moose’s precise but overly metronomic arpeggiations. As they move through the music, the ‘Partita No. 3 for Violin,’ ‘Suite No. 1 for Cello’ and a section of the ‘Partita No. 1 for Violin,’ she at times seems to urge him on, but the fire ignites under him quickly enough. Like her, he catches the natural combination of Bach’s rhythms and bluegrass attack and phrasing and each piece of music builds in excitement as in a live performance. The arrangements are skillful and imaginative, passing off the roles of lead and accompaniment with an understanding of the instruments’ strengths. It’s natural and effective for the guitar or mandolin to take the harmonic material while the fiddle essentially solos, and it sounds just as natural and effective for the fiddle to outline the harmonies through single note harmonics while Moose dances his way through into the lead. “In Double” is an excellent release, seemingly modest in scope but fundamentally grand in ambition and effect, an absolute pleasure for head and heart to hear and rehear, and is highly recommended; I want more, in fact. (Bach Reformed is giving a release performance at Barbes on Tuesday, November 24).

Classical Sax

The saxophone may now be the pre-eminent instrument in jazz, but the classical literature for it predates the origins of jazz. Classical saxophone is a beautiful instrument with an ideal of a rich, cultivated tone and fluid, melliferous phrasing. One can hear these qualities on Classical alto saxophonist Javier Oviedo’s debut release, The Classical Saxophone, a French Love Story.” The subtitle gives a hint of the history of the music, which is part of the tradition of the pedagogue Marcel Mule, but this record tells a very specific and slightly peculiar story. The material on the CD, which includes world premiere recordings of pieces by Jean Hure, Louis Mayeur, Gabriel Grovlez and a new orchestration of Eugene Bozza’s ‘Aria,’ is related to late 19th-early 20th century Francophile, philanthropist and classical saxophonist Elise Hall. Through her resources and performances she brought French Classical saxophone literature to American audiences.

Her personal story, which included not only her institutional philanthropy but her birth into Boston society, is important in understanding this music, which depends as much on a sense of a time and place in history as on its own qualities. This is music, mostly, for bourgeois audiences and for bourgeois pleasure, circa 1899 – 1919. There is a great deal of charm here and nothing to trouble the mind or the soul. Hure’s ‘Concertstuck’ is a lovely, lilting piece, while Grovlez’s three part ‘Suite for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra’ is a well-crafted updating of baroque dance forms. The weak selection is Mayeur’s ‘Grande Fantasie Brillante sur Carnival de Venise,’ which is an immature pastiche of themes and variations which never rise past the level of an exercise book, but there is also Glazunov’s fine ‘Concerto in E-flat major, Op. 109’ and the concluding ‘Aria’ is lovely. Oviedo is dedicated to this music and plays it with real love and care, and he’s ably accompanied by the Orchestre Pasdeloup, conducted by Jean-Pierre Schmidt, who ably capture this sound of salons and velvet settees.

Jazz and Poetry

Picture a basement nightclub in Greenwich Village, young men and women wearing black turtlenecks, berets and Wayfarers, listening to a recital of some free form poetry accompanied by bongos and a flute. At the end, they signal their approval by snapping their fingers. That’s the cliche of jazz and poetry, and while it may be dramatic is indicates pretty well how a good idea in theory can turn out to be a bad one in practice. Poetry and jazz music have only rarely made a successful mix. It’s not for trying, of course. A whole generation of poets was inspired by jazz, and some like Bob Kaufman successfully made it their aesthetic career. There’s a lot of good poetry about or inspired by jazz (these two collections are great places to start for the curious reader) but very little good jazz music made out of poetry. The problem in what I’ve heard has been the approach to the text, a sentimental view of poetry which sees it as too delicate to stand up to actual jazz music, and so the settings are arch. An example of this is Fred Hersch’s “Leaves of Grass” project, where poor Walt Whitman’s muscular, effervescent, joyous poetry is set to emasculating, genteel jazzy chamber music, with neither the barbaric yawp of jazz nor, frankly, the compositional skill to satisfy an undergraduate education. “Behold the received models of the parlors – /What are they to me?” Advice any jazz musician who wishes to seriously set poetry should heed.

Some have. The pioneer in this regard was the brilliant and individual Steve Lacy, who created an entirely new genre, the jazz art-song. Working specifically with poetry, rather than song lyrics, he made jazz music through setting the text as carefully as Schumann or Schubert had, although in an entirely different style. Lacy made a decision about what the poems meant to him and conveyed that through his music, and that’s the key. The poems say something, the music should say something about the poems. One of Lacy’s biggest projects was his Futurities,” settings of Robert Creeley poems in music for dance performance. Creeley was an aphoristic poet and Lacy an aphoristic composer and the music is natural, strong, tells us something about the poems and lets the musicians blow.

Now pianist Frank Carlberg has also made jazz out of Creeley’s poetry, and the result is the tremendous “American Dream.” Carlberg doesn’t shrink from the poems, and Creeley’s lines are tougher than leather. The very first sound is vocalist Christine Correa’s wail, as gripping as anything since John Vicker’s sang “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” at Covent Garden. Carlberg’s band, with Chris Cheek on tenor sax, John Hebert playing bass and Michael Sarin on drums, has some qualities of Keith Jarrett’s great European quartet, but with an extra toughness to their grooves and a tastier blues/rock filling. His settings of the text are excellent, turning the lines of poetry into real songs with harmonies and contrapuntal material that give the musicians a lot of ideas to work with. The star is Correa, her powerful and expressive singing dominates the record. Her full-throated voice demands attention and her musical sense and diction convey both the text and a plangent sense of meaning. She colors the phrases and notes with the details of real thoughts – the way she clips ‘out there’ into ‘out! . . . there . . . ;’ the joy of ‘we get crazy but we have fun,’ the rueful hope of ‘no more war, dear brother’ – that show she has command of not just the notes but the meanings. The connection to Lacy’s music is mostly subtle, but clear, important and welcome. Lacy was enormously admired but so individual that his practical influence on jazz has been slight. Carlberg has his own way of setting the same poet, his lines are longer and more lyrical, but the roar in the vocals triggers immediate memories of Lacy’s wife Irene Aebi wailing out on his great live set, “The Way,” and the tune for ‘Fat Fate’ could be heard as a fast variation on Lacy’s lovely ‘Napping.’ “American Dream” is a model of what jazz and poetry can achieve together, and is one of the finest jazz records of this decade. Tough, beautiful, driving and moving, it is urgently recommended.

New Guitar Music

Classical guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee came out with an excellent debut disc last year, and he’s followed it up with an EP which displays his wide range of musicianship and includes the bar-none finest recording of a great piece of contemporary music. But first, the rest.
As the title Solar/Electric” implies, this is an electric record, meaning that Lee is playing the electric guitar and using a good amount of electronic processing as well. The bookends are two original pieces, ‘Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea,’ which Lee describes as a “psychedelic, prog-rock fantasty concerto” dedicated to Jimi Hendrix and the closing ‘One Thought Among Many.’ His own words give a good idea of what he is doing and aiming for in the music. Lee is a superb guitarist, with exceptional musicality and technique, and he also shows on the EP that he has a real idea of what can be done with the electric guitar, a very different instrument. The electric instrument is a tremendous producer of pure sound, and Lee gets a lot of great sounds out of it; burning distortion, arching cries, vocalized “wahs.” ‘Sunrise’ is an extended improvisation for guitar which he accompanies with tuned crystal glasses, tuned percussion, strings and sampled sounds. There is respect for Hendrix and also for Ligeti’s cloud-harmony music and the music comes in several distinct sections, each full of evocative material. There’s almost too much good stuff going on, with different sections developing from intriguing introductions into something that is on the verge of making a larger statement, but then stops and another one begins. Structurally, this could benefit from both pruning and expansion, separating the different statements and pushing them further; there’s an album here, not just an EP.

The last piece takes one idea and develops it to complete satisfaction. It’s a soundscape of ambient guitar washes and trills, into which a slow rock flavored dialogue among overdubbed guitars gently elides. Tasty little phrases are passed back and forth and then the music vanishes at the ideal moment. The structure and discipline give this succinct material a lot of force.

In between is what makes this EP important, a fabulous recording of Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint.’ There have been other realizations since it’s premiere recording from Pat Metheny, including for percussion, but this performance seems the way the music has always meant to be. Lee’s production and attack are bright and full of verve, the articulation of each note makes the music almost dance and pushes it forward with a supple, flexible feeling for rhythm and tempo. The sound of his electric guitar is like the sun shining brightly on a beautiful day compared to the sold, slate gray of the Metheny version. Lee also fills out the electric sound with that of an acoustic guitar which gives this performance an absolutely beautiful sonic surface and depth. His emphasis on what he hears as the important elements of Reich’s counterpoint and beat show a tremendous feeling for and understanding of the music, and his slow middle movement is as lyrical as a great pop song. It’s absolutely stunning and is a real masterpiece of instrumental performance. (Solar/Electric” will be released on December 1, both in digital and physical formats, and Lee performs this music at Public Assembly on December 4).


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