The Sweet Spot

I’m suggesting that as the name for a style that has been almost impossible to clearly describe and, perhaps because of that, has been a bête noire for critics for almost a hundred years. Call it the Gershwin problem; was he writing classical, jazz or pop? Well, yes he was. He used classical form, technique and craft to make popular, accessible music that was full of the language of the blues and jazz. I think what is confounding is that Gershwin was a great genius, and generally we’re conditioned to think of genius as belonging to a high-art/esoteric context. He wanted to please, and he did while always being brilliant, and that’s greatness.

The Gershwin problem has continued in a few ways. One is in groups like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, that make pretty and charming music in the tradition of Gershwin but with so much less quality that it comes off as uncomfortably weak tea. That’s the rule, sadly, and so that sweet spot of where styles and ideas meet is seen as a middle-brow cultural ghetto.

Which, in terms of most film scores, it is. That’s a genre of music that should fit right into the sweet spot; music based on a legacy of classical forms, techniques and ensembles yet created to specifically please an audience from moment to moment. The great flowering of film music in the US was a result of the emigration of a strong handful of Neo-Romantic composers from Europe prior to the start of World War II – men like Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner – and there have been many scores that are true masterpieces of the style and, in the case of Toru Takemitsu, Ennio Morricone’s themes, Bernard Herrmann’s music for “Vertigo” and Jerry Goldsmiths perfectly evocative score for “Chinatown,” true masterpieces of music regardless of style.

One of the finer film composers was Alex North, who had a fruitful fifty year career in Hollywood and wrote the music for the film version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the subject of Streetcar Journey, a treatment from pianist Chie Sato Roden and Jody Redhage’s Fire In July band, one of the leading chamber-jazz ensembles. North’s material is both substantial and directly pleasing, and the arrangements on the disc turn the themes into fine material for the group to play, without any radical departures a la The Big Gundown. There’s also original music from the musicians, all of it good but mixed in terms of how comfortably it fits into the overall project.

Roden begins with a romantic, expressive take on North’s own arrangement of the “Streetcar” theme, four minutes of piano that sets the complex emotional terrain; a steamy, noir-ish melodrama for the characters caught up in the story and a subtly sensual pleasure for the listener, especially one who knows the story and can recall memories and impressions as the music slides past. The structure of the rest of the disc is like a medley, or an extended suit, one track eliding into the next. Trombonist Alan Ferber contributes the jazz piece “Paris,” which showcases how nicely this ensemble plays and also fits hand-in-glove with North’s music, so that the transition into “Four Deuces” sounds like another part of the same score.

There are a few tracks on the disc from Redhage, specifically from last year’s fine Ancient Star CD, and while the music is good, it sounds out of place to one who knows the tunes already. The effect jars the listener out of the involving reverie that the opening cuts develop, but this is an experience that will really depend on familiarity, or lack of, with that earlier release. Still, there is some problematic quality of two different records being mashed together. The contrast is between a kind of psychological aesthetic. Redhage’s music emphasizes a powerful purity, while North’s score, especially in sections like “Blanche” and “Lust,” has a compelling combination of romance and sleaze, maybe the essential features of pop music. The way Roden and the band play the original material makes something substantial out of it, frees it from the film to stand on its own as music that tells a story with the indeterminate meaning and deep, passionate expression that music does best.

Roden and her musicians play this music in celebration of the CD release this Saturday, February 5, 8PM, at the Tenri Cultural Institute, 43A West 13th Street in Greenwich Village.

Another disc in that sweet spot, and one that also features Redhage’s talents, is Galactic Diamonds , from pianist and composer Steve Hudson’s Chamber Ensemble (the other members are violinist Zach Brock and percussionist Martin Urbach). Hudson has some of the good film composer’s quality in his music, each of the eleven relatively short works on the recording are focussed on a precise expression, and there are many moments that tug at the strings of imaginary narratives, like the way the repeated harmonies modulate on the aptly titled “PG.” Hudson also favors tango rhythms, themes and interplay, like the title track and the opening “Tune With Tango.” This is music that comes out of the New Tango movement, taking what was essentially country-western, running it through the rigorous sieve of classical form and developing substantial improvisation out of it. These tangos are more genteel than New Tango founder Astor Piazzolla, with a light touch and relaxed tempo that has a subtle power.

As a composer, he is interested in the interplay of voices in the chamber music setting. To that he makes room for improvisation, and then wraps everything in a very straightforward, pop-music type of communication. The group aims to please without pandering, to play music for our enjoyment and theirs, and that sweet spot is a valuable thing.

UPDATED: Fixed typo

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Life Is A Cabaret, My Friends

Hearing chamber music instruments in a more pop context is no accident these days. It has a great deal to do with young musicians, brought up listening to pop music, training at conservatories and wanting to make music that’s both challenging and enjoyable. Twenty years ago, a cello or clarinet appearing on a pop record would have been a slightly pretentious ornament, nowadays there is pop music being made exclusively with the cello.

Except it’s not quite pop music, it’s something that can be identified as being truly new. It’s not an ideology but it certainly is a movement, and again it’s being driven by young, trained musicians who find that they love Brahms and Bowie. They grew up in a generation that felt less of a need to segregate their tastes, and their tastes had them playing jazz and rock and orchestral and chamber music, and singing. They also have listening habits based around that great genre leveler, iTunes, which transforms a music collection into a database of styles that can be queried and interrelated in good and constructive ways that many usually perceptive and sensitive critics are uncomfortable with.

What they produce is music which hovers in the region of different stylistic compass-points, shifting its balance and influence towards the spaces between, sounding at times a bit more like new chamber music, a bit more like jazz, a bit more like rock, but never solely one of those styles. A real pioneer who has done it as an independent artist is Zoe Keating, who as a solo performer uses the cello to make music that has rigorous structure and methods, is grounded in classical and new music techniques, and has the sonic and emotional immediacy of rock. Now there are two new recordings featuring ultra-contemporary cello playing, on out and one upcoming, which express two very different approaches to this idea Along with the cello, their common threads are philosophical; they each push forward the possibilities of what can be done with this fundamentally catholic approach to style.

Out right now is “The Secret Language of Subways” from Amy X. Neuburg and The Cello ChiXtet, which is actually a trio. This is a real album, music created for a live song-cycle. Listening to it is an intriguing experience. The sensation of a coherent set of songs, most of them in the first person, the cello accompaniment which ranges through a variety of rich harmony, counterpoint and propulsive rhythms, is the experience of cabaret. That’s a tricky genre to define, but there are certain things that it features; songs concerning personal narratives, a sense of the dramatic in musical style and performance, elements of various styles of popular music, show music and classical melded together with a sense of artifice (which may be sincere or ironic, or both). In the imagination, cabaret inhabits a timeless space where people are sensitive, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, perhaps a bit more elegant, refined and wealthy than we are, vaguely lonely and, in the room and listening to the music, acknowledging each other’s loneliness. There is a self-consciousness in cabaret that connects it to these ongoing projects to make something new out of musicians’ personal ideas, and the idea of cabaret is a useful lens through which to discover ways to apprehend and appreciate these in-the-moment styles, even if the music itself is not intended for that milieu. A mercurial and wonderful example of this is Iva Bittova’s recording with the Bang On A Can All-Stars, a charming and indescribable work that creates a new and satisfying place in the imagination.

Neuburg’s record is very much cabaret and also very much a new thing. The songs have a narrative complexity that goes beyond superficial slogans into personal searching and (un)intentional confession, the music works its way through styles, not only from song to song but within songs itself – a cabaret hallmark – always providing accompaniment that fits the lyrical content. Her singing has elements of whispering delicacy and dramatic belting, her harmonies emphasize modulation and her melodies emphasize intervals over the small up and down motion in most pop music.

There are knotty things going on here; the odd-meter, rocking pulse of ‘Someone Else’s Sleep’ accompanies a sinuous voice/cello duet that sounds South Indian; ‘Closing Doors’ has elements from Steve Reich’s “Tehillim,” and these are melodic elements which makes it a deeply interesting aspect of that composer’s influence on younger musicians; the record concludes with a confident, accomplished arrangement of Genesis’ ‘Back in NYC,’ which fits the lyrical and musical qualities of the record (there is more than a little progressive rock in the music that’s exploring the possibilities of these styles; pretty much any musician who has enjoyed playing classical, jazz and rock finds something musically appealing and inspiring in the work of groups like Genesis, Yes and, yes, Rush).

These are elements in how it works, but what does it do, exactly? It tells the story of a woman in a city, getting from situation to situation and from one emotional state and experience via the underground, which in the songs is both a physical conveyance and a way of thinking and feeling, of digging in and tunneling through out to the other side and, in this case, a sense of life. There is, like in Mahler and many classical song-cycles, a deliberate beginning in darkness and a gradual, complex, movement to some sense of light and reconciliation. While the Genesis tune serves as a send-them-out-the-doors epilogue, Neuburg’s lyrics begin in the tub, with the troubles of a performer (a self-referential quality that is cabaret at its best), take us into the subway, into emotional turmoil and conflict, and, finally, into a contemplation of the messes around and inside us that are an inevitable part of living. There are moments of circus humor and the best incorporation of ‘Chopsticks’ I’ve ever heard intended seriously – and yes, it works. As a whole, it’s an involving listen. Between the bookends, the songs will work to various degrees with various listeners; they have so much specific personality and don’t seek to please every imaginable listener, but they are all well-crafted. But this is not a record that one will sample, it’s one for listening all the way through, and that is a truly moving experience, the emotional and musical skein eliciting a plangent response right in the gut and a catch in the throat. The bookend songs, ‘One Lie’ and ‘Shrapnel,’ are dazzling, exquisite and powerful, and I predict they will be performed in front of well-dressed, smart, and vaguely, quietly lonely audiences in cabarets for years to come.

On September 15, you can buy “Ancient Star,” the debut recording from cellist-singer Jody Redhage and her ensemble Fire In July. Her synthesis of classical, jazz, rock and pop is much more in the chamber music vein, with a heavy emphasize on jazz and improvisation. Her excellent band features clarinet, trumpet, trombone, vibes, guitar, piano, bass, drums and percussion. While Neuburg is a dramatic, forceful singer able to move through different characterizations, Redhage’s pure-toned soprano is in the style of contemporary Medieval-Renaissance vocal performance practice. Her music has different ideas about composition, style and performance, it’s a step away from the personal drama of cabaret towards the slightly more abstract sense of individual pieces and songs, a concert rather than a salon performance. It covers a broader stylistic range as well; it’s made with more of a classical sensibility, and juxtaposes sections, placing Medieval monophony against a march, a shuffle beat against a Dixieland idea of group improvisation. Her lyrical material is an opportunity mainly to use her voice as an additional instrument and color in full-spectrum textures. Along with her own songs, she sets four William Carlos Williams poems, with varying results; ‘Ancient Star’ supports the text with a graceful groove and soaring melody, while the well-known ‘This Is Just to Say,’ is a perhaps deliberately awkward exercise in scanning, it stands out for taking the wrong lessons from Charles Ives’ songs because so much else of the record flows both vocally and instrumentally. The pieces structure pop grooves with the techniques of classical chamber music (more prog-rock) legacy, and the band handles that juxtaposition with aplomb, firm in the rhythm, transparent in the interplay and maintaining a supple line.

Her setting of Williams’ ‘The Boticellian Trees’ would fit on the program of any contemporary music recital, and is played with that stylistic understanding and sympathy. The band lays down a bass-line that would not be out of place on a Rush record on ‘Elevation,’ and plays a supple tango on ‘I Wonder Why.’ As an ensemble, they develop quite a lot of musical and emotional power, and there are real standout passages, especially an excellent vibes solo from Tim Collins on the concluding ‘Greenpoint Slide,’ and the entire ensemble on ‘Rum Point.’ They groove, rock, sing and shout. The general flaw is some stiffness in the leader; her singing is at times still caught in a classical conception of phrasing and rhythm, when the music she is making clearly calls for something else. But “Ancient Star” is a real accomplishment, refreshing and enjoyable, music that is exploring and pioneering a new style and doing so with real thought and skill.