The Dying of the Light Playlist

It’s bad enough that the days are getting shorter, but the light is going to be cut back an hour this Sunday. It’s going to be disorienting when you wake up, and disorienting when you watch the sun go down in the middle of the day. And that, on top of my aching back and now cold-engulfed head, has me seeking music full of stable, solid satisfactions. And so:

Assaf Kehati  Flowers and Other Stories 300x300 A quiet record that seems modest at first listen, but leaves a lingering sense of weight that has had me going back to it again and again. Assaf Kehati is out of the post-Metheny school of jazz guitarists, with a cool, limpid tone, matched by the understated playing of Alon Farber on saxophones. The disc opens with “Calling Me Home,” which has a lovely sound. Farber winds his way around the tune and the band, and in comparison Kehati’s first soloing seems subdued, almost reticent. That’s where the subtle power lies.

Kehati is a thoughtful player, an underrated and often misunderstood quality in jazz. It’s not that he thinks out all his improvising and becomes stiff, it’s just that he’s clearly thought about what it is he has to say, and so in the moment he’s coherent, articulate, each note and gesture building a larger context of meaning and expression. Jazz is a demanding music to play at even an unremarkable level, so it’s a given — and something often taken for granted – that jazz playing is inherently musical. It’s easy to just take a solo a player is laying out and think it’s good, when in fact good solo playing requires something more above basic jazz musicianship, which is having something to say.

In this music — and all the material was created by Kehati, including darkly moving pieces like “The Most Beautiful Flower”  — the guitarist has a lot to say, all of it involving. This is what makes for the satisfactions of the disc: the sound of beautiful modern jazz — and it is a beautiful record, a prime example of how so many of this generation of jazz musicians are emphasizing pure beauty — with a relaxed surface, fluid rhythms, and the sense that there’s something important going on just past the level of immediate perception. As much as he may be influenced by Metheny (and also Dave Holland’s Extensions record), it’s on the side of leading a small-group through attractive tunes and inventive interplay. Kehati balances internal substance with a gentle, but inexorable forward movement, and that’s the thing that leads the listener on. There have been many fine jazz guitar releases this year, and Flowers and Other Stories joins them. You can order it at CD Baby.

Crowd-pleasing classical music, to be sure, but pleasing through quality, not pandering. Rimsky-Korsakov was a great master of color, and Stravinsky’s early ballets could not have been created without the older composer’s lessons and influence. This is a generous disc that bookends a handful of dramatic overtures with Capriccio Espagnoland the Russian Easter Overture, two of Rimsky-Korsakov’s finest works. The music is colorful, lyrical, offering nothing more profound than sheer beauty. And that’s awfully profound.

Fragments of this music will jog the memories of many – the gorgeous “Variazioni” movement of the Capriccio has one of the most famous melodies in classical music. The performances here are excellent, recorded as Gerard Schwartz’s 25+ year tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony came to a close. Under Schwartz, the orchestra became one of the major regional symphonies in the country, playing at a high level and emphasizing luminous color — another fine disc to hear is their new release of the Borodin Symphonies 1-3. The partnership also produced an important series of recordings of American orchestral music on the Delos label, which Naxos is now in the process of reissuing, including recent reprints of two benchmark CDs of symphonies from Howard Hanson. All the elements of superb music-making are here; musical phrasing, sensitive dynamics and modulations of tempo, drive and conviction. Concermaster Maria Larionoff and Principal Horn John Cerminaro are especially fine. Recommended.

Fabian Almazan has been receiving enough publicity this fall to inspire envy in many a peer. A lot of it is deserved, his debut release, Personalities (available digitally, or pre-order the CD), is one of the more interesting and promising jazz CDs of the year. It’s not perfect, and doesn’t completely fulfill its possibilities, but the open-ended, questioning nature of the music is refreshing.

Alamazan rounds out his trio with Linda Oh on bass and Henry Cole on drums, and plays some tasty electric piano as well as the acoustic instrument. He’s also joined at times by a string quartet, opening the CD by playing an arrangement of the “Adagio” movement from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10. These are the two elements that obviously stand out, and they are both intriguing and distracting. The Shostakovich arrangement passes the music between Almazan and the strings, the former playing with some freedom, the latter taking it straight. There’s also some electronic processing laid on, for no apparent reason and without much effect. What’s winning about the arrangement is that, except for the technology, he doesn’t do too much with material that is already great. Of course, the problem with opening with Shosty is he’s a tough act to follow.

Almazan hangs in there pretty well, and it may be an odd criticism to say that the rest of the CD is very fine contemporary jazz, with a sense of shape to the tunes and wonderful playing from the trio. But the opening track opens a door into a passage of great, unsettling, exploratory musicianship from which the rest of the disc turns away. There’s great lyricism, and an evocative melancholy which touch the heart and the mind. Like the previous two discs, there’s a solidity, a sense of seriousness without too much heaviness. As the music is Alamzan’s responses to important people in his life, there’s a bitty feeling that is at odds with the sense of composition — the group is playing pieces, not tunes. But once the ears are inside each piece, the music is completely winning. “H.U.G.S” and “The VIcarious Life” are two of many excellent tracks. Slightly frustrating, yes, but compelling … absolutely.