Near Future/Recent Past

Tuesday and Wednesday this week Reid Anderson debuts his first solo project since the forming of The Bad Plus, The Rough Mixes, in St. Paul. It is an evening-length work for three classical strings, Jeff Ballard, and Reid on electronics. Read Pamela Espeland's nice piece in the Star Tribune. We all wish Reid the very best for what is a seriously momentous occasion! I'm looking forward to hearing it, hopefully live in NYC as soon as possible.

I will be escorting Billy Hart to the JJA award ceremony on Wednesday. Billy is their drummer of the year, DTM is nominated for blog of the year. While I have the utmost respect for all working jazz critics I somehow have never been to this important annual event before. I suspect Billy and I may make it over to the Village Vanguard afterwards, where Mark Turner is playing all week with his new working band starring Avishai Cohen, Joe Martin, and Marcus Gilmore.

Just back from Ojai Festival and Ojai North! with Mark Morris, his dancers, his musicians and an incredibly generous serving of American classical music.

The Alastair Macaulay NY Times review of Spring, Spring, Spring is positive but more guarded about the dance than the music. More than one critic has been stumped by Mark's drastic recasting of Stravinsky's basic emotion: rather than torment, Mark gives us joy. Why not? At any rate, The Bad Plus found his fresh perspective to be wonderfully freeing. We are recording it next week, and Mark's dance will help us to remember to keep our teeth unclenched even in the most intense sections.  (We never liked killing virgins, anyway.) 

It was fascinating to hear so much John Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and John Luther Adams during the past two weeks. I enjoyed playing Cage's Four Walls, 45 minutes of white notes, rests, and an unaccompanied soprano. Maile Okamura made costumes for me and Yulia Van Doren:


(photo by MMDG company manager Sarah Horne)

Our admittedly over-the-top performance was received well by audiences but not by LA Times critic Mark Swed, who gave me the worst review I ever remember getting. Swed is an expert on Cage, so he knows what he's talking about, but, just to clarify, I wasn't making fun of the piece.  My choices were intended to protect Cage by presenting a compelling performance. After all, Cage was a genius and must have known that Four Walls was not piano recital music like Beethoven and Chopin. I certainly observed Cage's dynamics, which include many long sections repeatedly marked fff, fffz, or even the rather ludicrous ffff, all of which basically means "as loud as possible." The "light, focused" touch that Swed asks for is correct for the opening pages and a few other places, but once it gets going…I dunno. For me, it needs to rage. Several people told me they were unsettled by Four Walls, and that was entirely the intention.

Through Mark, I had heard much of the major Harrison and Cowell pieces before, but somehow Harrison's Piano Concerto with Javenese Gamelan was brand new to me. I was astonished, and after one hearing consider it one of Harrison's greatest pieces. As good as the relatively conventional Harrison Piano Concerto is, the Gamelan one is even better, with a slow movement that has one of the most purely gorgeous melodies classical music has produced in recent memory. Ojai director Tom Morris told me that the piano started getting tuned to the Gamelan a full month before the performances by Colin Fowler and Gamelan Sari Raras. Extraordinary sounds!

I'm less close to Cowell than Harrison, especially Cowell's work for larger forces. Still, it was nice to hear so much extremely rare music live. For me, though, the greatest Cowell is the CD of his own piano performances, where guttural rhythm, fecund idea, and precise gesture align perfectly. Everyone should own that essential recording of American originality. ("Anger Dance" from that disc is the soundtrack for Mark's dance with Muppets for Sesame Street.)

John Luther Adams is very much in the grain of American mavericks. Mark exposed me to his hour-long meditation for string orchestra, string quartet, and two pianos For Lou Harrison a few years ago. Live the greatness of piece became even clearer to me, even thoush I could tell what a struggle it was to navigate the canvas of 4:5:6:7 polyrhythm.  (I heard talk about how some of the orchestra complained.) In addition to whatever travails the orchestra went through, much of the audience didn't like it and grew noticeably restive. Someone even jeered "play it again" at the end at both performances. It didn't matter. For Lou Harrison was invulnerable and intoxicating even in adverse conditions.

It is not hard to listen to if you know what to listen for. There are only two sections, and while it may seem like there is nothing but repetition, in fact there is no harmonic repetition.

The problem I occasionally have with minimalism, post-minimalism, and even with forebears like Cowell and Harrison  is a certain inelegance in the harmony.

Not here. Luther Adams exhibits marvelous harmonic control in For Lou Harrison. Each change in the slow-moving chord progression is unexpected yet absolutely correct. At last we have Bruckner-level chorales for the new style! The recording by Stephen Drury and The Callithumpian Consort is wonderful and includes extensive and helpful notes by Peter Garland.

The California weather was terrific for two solid weeks. TBP took Hwy 1 instead of the freeway for the first part of the trip from Ojai to Berkeley, and I got a nice shot of Dave King.