Short Cuts

No unifying idea, just a bunch of new CDs in review . . .


Sarah Wilson plays the trumpet and sings on her disc, Trapeze Project, which presents her as a jazz musician. She’s actually a singer-songwriter; her tunes, whether played or sung, are written specifically for how her voice works, the problem being she is an extremely limited singer. Her phrases are all the same length – short – her pitch range – vocal and instrumental – tightly confined, and the shape of her tunes – up, then down – never changes; everything sounds the same.

And it doesn’t sound good. Her material seems to want to capture the charm of Sufjan Stevens but sounds like his shop sweepings. Where he captures a sweet but mature innocence, she expresses a tweens treacle; “Melancholy For Place” is notable for painfully embarrassing lyrics and some of the stiffest delivery imaginable. She forces Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” fit into the box of her limited ability, and it turns out to be completely self-damning. The all-star band of Myra Melford, Ben Goldberg, Jerome Harris and Scott Amendola goes to waste save for the disc’s high point, the Goldberg solo feature “Fall Has Arrived,” which is telling in that she neither wrote the tune nor barely makes an appearance on the track. The closing jam “To New Orleans” unflatteringly compares her to the musicians she hired. There are very few recordings I would urge people to not listen to, this unfortunately is one of them.

The Either/Orchestra has a new recording out with the excellent title of Mood Music for Time Travellers (sic). Their laid-back style of big band Latin/African jazz is a treat, and this record comes off as something like Esquivel but without the current layer of ironic stance and with some real music making and playing going on. The surface is mellow and polished, but the results are not superficial. Melodies and harmonies have a sense of familiarity, a little rhumba here, a little reggae there, plenty of hooks and hints for the ear to hang onto. The band mixes elements of pop and world music together into a sound that is accessible and unique. Underneath is a lot of intelligent, sophisticated and highly musical soloing and ensemble work, and the disc has a subtle and powerful effect. The sequencing of the pieces, mostly by Russ Gershon with contributions from Rick McLaughlin and Joel Yennior, moves the tenor and tone from good times mood music to some probing and open-ended emotional questions, leaving an unexpected and intriguing set of lingering reactions. Not just good Latin/world-jazz, but good music that rewards long term listening.

A New Face is the appropriately titled debut CD from pianist Bobby Avey, accompanist to the likes of Steve Wilson, Ben Monder and Dave Liebman. Liebman is featured on a few tracks, and provides his usual warm, thoughtful musicianship. His soprano sax helps balance out the overall texture of the recording, which is forceful in the extreme and even a bit punishing, depending on one’s mood. Avey is a player who emphasizes the sharp, odd-metered rhythms of Bartok and a heavy, powerful left hand, with an emphasis on the very lowest range of the piano. The playing and interaction with his trio, Thomas Kneeland on bass and Jordan Pearlson on drums, is sympathetic and energetic. Together, they rival The Bad Plus in sheer fire, but they are committed to playing straight contemporary jazz. A lot of this music is thrilling, like the smart, neo-funk of “Half Is Less Than Half” and “Delusion,” a bomb detonated by the fuse of a Bulgarian rhythm. Avey has chops and imagination to burn, and the sole drawback of the recording, that so much of it is in the same emotional and aesthetic tenor, the demonstration of those chops, is perhaps due to a young man seeking to prove himself. He certainly has, and I would expect more, and more varied, music from him, and welcome it.


Nathaniel Stookey’s Junkestra is an EP, and a short one at that, so there’s not a great deal to go on. He’s made a percussion ensemble and piece out of material salvaged from the San Francisco Dump. The result is sonically colorful, with writing that is precisely ordered and structured, and is capably played by members of the San Francisco Youth Symphony, conducted by Benjamin Shwartz, with nice color from David Weiss’ musical saw. There’s a nice spaciousness and construction to the piece and good ensemble writing, and I’d like to hear more. It’s so short, though, less than a dozen minutes, that it’s not clear what more would be like. The “Dance Mix” loosens up the overall effect nicely.

Assimilate This

Because the vicious, cretinous debate over who is and who is an American never seems to include anything about American culture, two worthy classical CDs are worth discussing aesthetically and politically. The first is a collection of string music from Behzad Ranjbaran, an Iranian composer who lives in the United States and teaches at Juilliard, which is probably too confusing for Fox News to analyze. An excellent bunch of young musicians, solo players and the Sejong Soloists ensemble, plays works for string ensemble, violin duo and string quartet. The music has some programmatic features, some ideas of transformation of emotional and physical states as well as the marking of rituals, but it stands as well simply by how it sounds. Ranjbaran’s writing does feature some sonic touches of Persian classical music, but it is also firmly in the tradition of Bartok and balances that composer’s use of folk idioms inside more complex compositions. This CD is full of lyricism, drive and rich harmonies. Ranjbaran writes in a tonal idiom and makes effective and expressive use of dissonance. The music sounds familiar in that we know how to listen to it and fresh in that it is literally new to the ears, and in that the composer has a distinctive and satisfying voice. The opening “Awakening” begins quietly and hesitantly before eventually developing into a rousing, rewarding piece, and the closing “String Quartet” is pleasingly elusive, human and lyrical. This work is new to me, and I’m glad to get to know it.

More familiar are the pieces of Alan Hovhaness, an American composer who made full use of the fundamental right of freedom of thought, consciousness and expression and wrote music that had a great deal to do with Central Asia and it’s musical heritage. He’s well know for his “Magic Mountain” Symphony, which even Jaco Pastorius used to quote as a staple of his solos during Weather Report concerts. Naxos has issued a good deal of his music, and the latest release has three of his most unusual and attractive works, the Symphonies 7, “Nanga Parvat,” 14, “Ararat” and 23, “Ani.” These are scored for wind instruments and percussion, and share some similarities in style, especially a lot of fanfare-like material. The music is highly evocative of place and seems mysterious when head in the middle on contemporary American culture. There is the sensation of distant lands calling out to us, almost in dreams. Hovhaness didn’t write these as impressions, like Debussy, but rather in a rigorous, almost severe idiom that is still made with beautiful harmonies, dazzling colors and structural ideas, especially the juxtapositions of complete sections within each movement, that are exotic and ‘exotic’ in our experience of Western Classical music. The performances by the Trinity College of Music Wind Orchestra under Keith Brion seem exemplary, and the sound quality, so important in this kind of instrumentation, is excellent. This is a disc that will grab the attention from beginning to end and is full of surprising and satisfying music, and the large scale Symphony 23 is especially fine, one of the composer’s best works. A necessary release for fans of the composer and an ideal introduction to his unique and wonderful style.

UPDATE: Speaking of assimilation, don’t forget to see Machete, opening this weekend:


Author: gtra1n

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.

3 thoughts on “Short Cuts”

  1. Hi George,

    Thanks for the review of Mood Music for Time Travellers. It’s a pleasure and a relief to read a review from some one who not only likes the music but both perceives the surfaces and understands the underlying program.

    By the way, the spelling of “Travellers” – to which you gave a “(sic)” – is apparently standard British usage but also considered a legitimate alternative to the one “l” version in American usage. It’s kind of a reference the old Weather Report album, “Mysterious Traveller.”

    Good luck with your music, and keep on writing!


    1. Thanks Russ, and thanks for making good records. Your language point is part of an interesting argument. I’m going to stick with my editing because I’m an American, writing in American English about, in your case, American music. I have no argument over whether American or British English is superior, just that the distinctions are interesting and important to me.

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