The Virtuoso of Joy

Jaco Pastorius: Truth, Liberty & Soul

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“Virtuoso” is used promiscuously, without much thought for the actual thing it is describing.

Here’s an example: Lang Lang is considered a virtuosic pianist. He plays at fast tempos and does so with a lot of demonstrative physical flourishes. He also has terrible technique, constantly fudging passages and in the times I’ve seen him unable to maintain a consistent pulse or tempo. I’ve also never heard any ideas from him, so his ability to play the piano and think about music are both questionable to me. There’s nothing I see in him that’s virtuosic, other than perhaps public presentation.

Then there are musicians like Oscar Peterson, or Jascha Heifetz, or Al Di Meola, who can play the hell out of their instrument but, to my ear and heart, do nothing more than spin out polished notes—they have nothing to say. Admiring their technique only goes so far.

Virtuosos to me are musicians who have technique that supports thinking, and the insight and depth of their thinking is so grand that it needs astonishing technique to speak. Think beyond mere dexterity to phrasing, the clear articulation of complex music, the expressive use of timbre. Think Glenn Gould, Django Reinhardt, Anne Sophie-Mutter.

And think Jaco Pastorius. Jaco was an astonishing, jaw-dropping player, the kind of musician who has you at first not quite believing that the things he is doing can actually be done. That thought is immediately swept away by the utter wonder of his music making, the grand pleasure. With Jaco, that was an enveloping universe of funk, soul, jazz, beauty, and, above all else, joy.

Jaco still elicits vituperation (check a couple of the comments on this post from 2010), which mystifies me. I press my sympathetic imagination, and I just can’t find any thinking that would reject the sheer social pleasure of his playing. You have to have a hardness in your heart to sneer at the gifts Jaco offered.

Yes, there are purists of all types, who are ideologically against things like electric instruments, rock beats in jazz, what they see as the mongrelization of styles (which is pretty damn ignorant in a mongrel culture like ours), or even that, under Jaco’s hands, the bass was a lead instrument.

He played the bass as a lead instrument because that was his personality, and you don’t need to have known him to see that in his playing—that spirit that came through every note was irrepressible and full of a particular and worthwhile purity, the pure joy of making music for others. Live or on record, Jaco’s primary expression was something like: “playing music for you is the greatest thing in the world, man.”

Underneath was Jaco’s imagination, which was capacious, articulate, and disciplined. His self-titled debut album, which is still great, starts famously with him playing “Donna Lee” on the bass (that set a lot of musicians on their ears), and then immediately segues into the tight funk of “Come On, Come Over,” with Sam & Dave. The jazz police charged him with a felony, I think it’s fabulous and it hits the body so hard that one would have to consciously wall off and reject a sense of fun.

Debut albums in jazz are generally made to show the listener what the musician can do, and Jaco is no exception. Although it is in the sense that what Jaco could do was both unfettered by convention and tightly focussed on a seamless blend of American vernacular music. Jaco came out as a jazz musician, but he was fundamentally just an American musician—he came up professionally playing soul, funk, rock, and R&B along with jazz, the last one of the range of American vernacular musics. And playing professionally before he became a star, he was a superb ensemble player.

Listen to him that way, from “Donna Lee” to “Come On, Come Over” to “Third Stone From the Sun.” Listen past his playing, if you can, to his composing and arranging, which were tremendous, from the abstract riffs of “Teen Town” to the gorgeous, formally sophisticated “Three Views of a Secret,” to the charts for his exceptional Word of Mouth big band, and then to the deep, open-ended beauty of his essential Word of Mouth album. And of course, “Portrait of Tracy,” not just a showpiece for what Jaco could do with the bass, but a haunting and lovely piece of music. It was, as Charlie Parker said to Symphony Sid, “all just music.”

He was a masterful musician in the old sense (before industrialization, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and academic/professional specialization) of the composer-musician, creating in every aspect of his practice. Everything he did was deeply musical. As he told Guitar World magazine, “I have never tried to play fast in my life.” You can hear this: even churning out funky 16th-note bass lines, everything is both clearly articulated and musically meaningful, even the briefest note has a thought and a purpose behind it. Few musicians can claim that.

This new archival release continues the joy and spirit of Jaco’s music making. It comes in the typical beautiful package from Resonance, and is the usual labor of love and devotion from producer Zev Feldman. It adds on to the somewhat confusing discographical legacy of the WOM band: Invitation is a distillation of a Japan-released two CD set, Twins I & II, while The Birthday Concert is a separate gig from December, 1981. If your budget dictates only one of these recordings, make it Invitation, which is tight, punchy, and a great representation of this period. Ideally, you want to have the Twins and then add this live concert from the old Avery Fisher Hall in 1982. The recording is clean and rich, though oddly the sound quality seems to mellow the mood. Not that this is a bad thing, but the WOM band had a jauntiness that flowed from Jaco—hearing less of that is a bittersweet reminder of how tragic his life turned out to be, and why his loss still feels so raw for those who appreciate joy.



UPDATED: Fixed Spotify embed

Fly That Freak Flag Loudly

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This is a soundtrack to being on the right side of history: the Spring 2017 compilation from the excellent metal label Southern Lord. It’s available for name-your-own price, but I encourage you to toss them at least a fiver, because all proceeds go to the ACLU.

 

via ▶︎ Southern Lord Spring 2017 compilation. Proceeds to benefit the ACLU. Never give up the struggle. Never give up the fight. Name your own price. | Southern Lord Spring Sampler 2017

2016 Classical Releases—The Last Word

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In the course of a year, I listen to more jazz on record and hear more classical music in the concert hall. That’s a matter of circumstances; I would prefer that were reversed, but there are few opportunities for me to write about live jazz, and jazz venues are generally unwelcoming to the those without prestige credentials.. The New York Classical Review, or the other hand, gives me the opportunity to cover classical music performances, and before I started writing there, classical music venues were always been open to me as an independent critic.

This is the context for my relationship with recordings. While I’d prefer to get more of my jazz live, recordings are necessary to hear new musicians, and hear what players who aren’t getting gigs are doing.

For classical music, recordings can be puzzling. For new music, recordings are a logical and necessary means to document expansion of the tradition—likewise recordings of obscure but worthwhile music (there is still a lot of stuff like that from the Renaissance and Baroque eras). But for the standard repertoire, it’s often unclear why recordings are made. Do we need more recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, more Chopin Preludes, more Vivaldi Concertos? No, we do it. But we get them anyway.

This is the staple of the last vestiges of the big record labels, like Deutsche Gramophone sign a new a star performer and put them through the cycle of recording all the appropriate standard works. It makes sense for unique talents like Daniil Trifonov, who has many new ideas about older pieces. It makes less sense for even spectacular talents like Yuja Wang, who gives music unbelievable life in concert, but is it not rethinking anything. For solid but unsurprising musicians like Yannick Nézet-Séquin, it makes no sense.

This is because classical music, despite common perceptions, is a living art. Like plays from the past, the art needs to be performed and experienced in the moment. The sense of occasion, community, and time in the concert hall is entirely different than in the living room, and music is also made an entirely different way in the recording studio. Nézet-Séquin, at his best, leads performances that are exemplary renditions of what’s on the page. At his best, this makes for another fine recording. but the classical music discography general is clogged with fine recordings, and reissues are the best recordings from the past are plentiful and cheap.

So again, why make these, and why listen to them? Because Trifonov appears to be a musician of historical greatness, and it is exciting to witness him discovering his own thoughts about the tradition. Same is true for Murray Perahia’s CD of Bach’s French Suites-not only is his playing superb but his thinking is fresh (this recording was made for Sony as part of Perahia’s exploration of Bach, but the label dropped him without release it, and DG picked it up).

But even with exciting musicians like Trifonov and Igor Levitt, most of what comes from the big labels is exactly what you expect: more Brahms, more collections of arias, more cross-overs. Classical music is where the independent labels are more interesting, and more important, than in any other genre. Here are my continuing favorites with their best releases from 2016 and early 2017.

Harmonia Mundi is the home for some of the finest musicians in classical music and well-chosen repertory. This is where you’ll find recordings of Monteverdi’s and Mozart’s operas and Bach’s Passions, led by René Jacobs, that are among the finest and most important ever made and that should be part of your music library. The label is also where you’ll hear the fresh intelligence of musicians like fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, violinist Isabelle Faust, pianist Alexander Melnikov, baritone Matthias Goerne, harpsichordist Richard Egarr, the Jerusalem String Quartet, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. They put out a substantial number of period performance practice recordings, and also the beautiful contemporary choral music of Craig Hella Johnson. Here are some of the finest recent releases:

Bridge, founded by guitarist David Starobin, maintains a catalogue of under-represented common practice period composers, and specialized in comprehensive series from modern and contemporary composers. The most important of these is their recordings of music by Stefan Wolpe. Wolpe’s music comes out of early 20th century European modernism, but is really unclassifiable. He could write atonally, he could use popular music, theatrical elements, pretty much anything. His work is imaginative, expressive, made with refined, strong structures, and full of surprises. He was one of the finest composers of the 20th century, and had an important influence as a teacher once he emigrated to America. Other recommended series and 2016 releases:

ECM, while not originally a classical label, has now pioneered a new music style that is predominantly tonal, and mixes pre-baroque, minimalism, and improvisation, either as a collection or as a synthesis. And through contemporary composers like Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and Arvo Pärt, they’ve used their New Series to explore both modern and common practice period repertory. While the results have been inconsistent—there’s some recordings of 19th and early 20th century music that are surprisingly poor, while Andras Schiff’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas cycle is full of fascinating thinking and draws one back again and again, and Gidon Kremer’s two collections of music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg have made an extraordinarily strong case for the composer—the label has completely filled the classical music niche that Nonesuch used to fill, and continues to expand in both the standard repertory and such extra-classical composed music as by Anouar Brahem and Tigran Mansurayn.

Winter & Winter is an addendum, but worth noting. Their classical releases are few but extremely well-chosen. They’ve produced interesting, but non-essential, recordings of modern and avant-garde music played by accordionist Teodoro Anzelotti, but of late have become the home for two major artists, Barbara Hannigan and Hans Abrahamsen. Their two Abrahamsen releases, Schnee and let me tell you, and Hannigan’s recording of Satie’s Socrate are must-haves.

Talking Time and Space With Steve Roach

The paucity of recent posting has been to due an exhausting January of freelance writing. Here’s one of the fruits and one of the most enjoyable, my interview with the great electronic musician Steve Roach, for Bandcamp.

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steve-roach_1982-600-2 Steve Roach, 1982

Space music: the term implies an evocation of the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos, the slow synchronized movement of stars in the night sky, the incredible shapes and colors of nebulae. But look in the opposite direction, and space music becomes an exploration of the equally infinite and vastly more mysterious and complex world of the inner self. That is the space that electronic musician Steve Roach has been exploring since the late 1970s. Through seemingly disparate styles, like the tectonic pulse and crystalline shapes of the classic Structures from Silence, the ambient soundscapes of Quiet Music, and the sequenced bleeps and bloops of Skeleton Keys, Roach has been using music as a way to hold time at bay, and to weave a connection between the individual and the universal.

Working entirely outside of changing fashions in electronic music, Roach has made dozens…

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Bruckner Time

Anton Bruckner

Tonight, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin bring the first performance cycle in American history to Carnegie Hall (I’ll be reviewing tonight’s concert, and Symphony Nos. 5 and 9 for the New York Classical Review).

Bruckner is a major symphonic composer, and in the eyes of some the greatest symphonist. That may see a bizarre claim, but that’s because there has been so little exposure to his music here. He has a reputation for being simplistic and dull. I thought that myself, but discovered that had more to do with the interpretations than the composing.

Given the chance to hear knowledgable, committed interpretations, Bruckner’s extraordinary virtues come through: the gorgeous forms that are like great Gothic cathedrals; the enthralling Adagios; the physical vitality of his Scherzos; the superb counterpoint and skill at modulation; the fantastically long melodies; and the transparent and sublime connection to the wonder and terror of his Catholic faith.

But there are aspects of his art that trouble people. Though he was composing in the mid-19th century, he mostly eschews the ideology of the era, development. Bruckner forms his symphonies out of beautifully shaped and intensely dramatic moments, connected by interludes. Then repeat. There’s some nod to sonata form, and he will use the old menuet-trio model, but his sense of form and especially time seems out of place with his tonal language. That is what I love about Bruckner. Coming to him in the late 20th century, he is more like Philip Glass than anyone else (Bruckner was important to Glass), and the last two symphonies are still New Music.

For a way experience the music, look to European musicians and orchestras, who have been playing this music for a century and a half, from the mighty Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics to myriad, regional orchestras. Bruckner is in their ears and hearts.

  • Barenboim has the rare distinction of having recorded three different, complete Bruckner cycles, all of which are at the top level of the Bruckner discography and all of which are worth owning. The pronounced differences come from the three different orchestras; the Chicago Symphony on Deutsche Grammaphon, the Berlin Philharmonic on Warner Classics, and the Staatskapelle on Barenboim’s own Perla label (2016 digital releases) or DG for the CD pressing (which from Amazon gives you a free download). The Chicago recordings are brass to the max, the orchestra’s famous section making a glorious sound throughout; Berlin plays with a much darker sound; and the Staatskapelle has a lithe, earthy sound. Interpretatively, the earliest set is full of thrills, the second cycle is closer in spirit to Fürtwangler, and the latest one has the most natural feeling, as if all the musicians are back in the 19th century, and the music is both new and part of their overall daily culture.
  • Eugene Jochum’s recordings are at the foundation of the Bruckner discography, but I confess here to not enjoying them. They are energetic and sincere, but to me they are superficial and the tempos are always a bit off. With that though, his recordings of the Masses 1 – 3 on Deutsche Grammaphon are marvelous; fluid, earthy, and touching on the mystical. They were formative to my interest in Bruckner, and I consider them an essential part of a good classical music library..
  • Günter Wand was a less well known contemporary of Jochum’s with masterful knowledge of Bruckner, and I prefer his recordings. He produced multiple statements, scattered across several labels, and if you don’t want to search, this bargain reissue is an excellent first choice. Wand’s Bruckner is measured and sane, with a solid large scale form. There is a partial cycle he recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic later in life, and if is tremendous; the orchestra is superior, of course, and there is a palpable feeling of excitement, with the music building to climaxes that are glorious. Listen to that one loud. It is missing Symphonies 1–3 and 6, but everything else is as fine as you’ll ever hear.
  • Bruno Walter is single-handedly responsible for my love for Bruckner. His Columbia recording of Symphony No. 9 was the first Bruckner I listened to, and the profound beauty and metaphysical depths of it convinced me that the composer was worth exploring. It still stands up, from the intensely misterioso e poetico atmosphere of the opening, through the physical might of the Scherzo and the lush internal world of the Adagio. All of Walter’s Bruckner is great—as much as I love his Brahms, and as important as is his Mahler, he sounds most at home with Bruckner. He didn’t record the complete works, but every serious classical music listener should have this collection of his Bruckner and Mahler releases on Columbia.
  • Georg Tintner’s cycle is essential if you find yourself a Bruckner fan. His various orchestras—from Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand, for example—give the music their all, though of course they are not the finest ensembles. But Tintner directs the music with great pace, shape, and sense of meaning, and most importantly he not only includes all the symphonies (including the Study Symphony and the Die Nulte), but also Bruckner’s first complete editions, before the meddling of others. And Bruckner’s first thoughts were wonderful, especially in the 4th and 8th Symphonies.
  • Simone Young/Marek Janowski: two new cycles I picked up last year. Janowski is an old hand at this music, while Young has been making waves with her releases. I have not listened all the way through either of these, but my impressions are that Janowski is very well played and very straight, ideal if you’re not familiar with the work, but perhaps less of interest if you have several sets already. The Young I would recommend unreservedly, it is moving to the very top of the cycles I have heard. I love her pace, which is deliberate in the sense that she has things to say and she’s going to take the time she needs to say them; the tempos are objectively on the slow side but the music making is deep with emotional meaning and is very exciting to hear. Both have superb SACD sound, both clear and glowing. Everyone should get the Young set, wether you’ve heard 1 or 100 before.

Bruckner has been a part of European classical culture since the premieres of his symphonies. One measure of how deep he’s embedded is in how many orchestras that you have never heard of produce terrific Bruckner recordings. Many of these were trapped behind the Iron Curtain for decades, lost to Western ears, but they kept playing, and conductors in the East and West made careers out of traveling around Central Europe and leading a repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner.

  • Cristian Mandeal: His cycle with the Cluj-Napoca Philharmonic is available through Abruckner.com, and there he has also made and excellent recording of Symphony No. 9 with the Hallé
  • Heinz Rögner: He contributes the bulk of recordings (along with Vávlav Neumann, Franz Konwitschny, and Kurt Sanderling) to a fine cycle on the Brilliant Classics budget label from the Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester Berlin.
  • Volkmar Andreae: An excellent, historic cycle with the Vienna Symphony, taped off radio broadcasts made in Soviet occupied Vienna. Andreae had by 1911 performed all of the Bruckner symphonies, so this is old-school in the best way.
  • Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: A fiery, powerful set, one of the best available with one of the best 9ths put on record, with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern.

If you are interested in sampling individual recordings, there are some fantastic ones, profound and gripping: