Important to Watch

Piano Quintet by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, streaming in performance by pianist Sarah Rothenberg with the Daedalus Quartet. This is a production of Da Camera in Houston, where Rothenberg is artistic director. This film premiered on Friday and is up for a week, so act fast.

Weinberg is not a familiar name but I was thrilled by this Quintet. He was an associate of Dmitri Shostakovich, and there are certainly similarities, but Weinberg is a shade more subtle in his harmonic flow, perhaps a bit more “Brahmsian.” The film is beautifully recorded and quite riveting overall. It’s a substantial work in five movements but the time just flows by. At some point I’d like to sit with the scores to three great Russian piano quintets, Shostakovich, Weinberg, and Schnittke, and study them properly as a set. Wonderful music.

Much more context and commentary in Rothenberg’s program note.


Suite à l’ancienne (Suite in the old style) by Marc-André Hamelin, streaming in performance by pianist Rachel Naomi Kudo. This is truly exciting! Hamelin is developing slowly into being one of the great composers for the piano — this is, of course, in addition to being one of the finest performers in the instrument’s history. Kudo is a young star and the winner of the 2008 Gilmore Young Artist award; this stream premiered Friday, produced by the Gilmore, and will be up for a month.

J.S. Bach wrote fair number of dance suites following a certain pattern: French suites, English suites, and Partitas for keyboard, cello, and violin. Eventually later composers wrote their own collections of Allemande, Courantes, Gigues, and the like. Grieg’s Holberg Suite is in the active repertoire; notable romantic pianist-composers Eugen d’Albert and Ernst von Dohnányi both recorded sumptuous Suites in the old style; modernist offerings include a dodecaphonic Suite from Arnold Schoenberg and a dissonant but neoclassic Partita from Yehudi Wyner.

Hamelin’s own piano scores all directly engage with the past. So far I’ve heard a stunning Prelude and Fugue, a torrential set of Etudes, two sets of Variations, a Toccata on old tune…One gets the sense of a general surveying his vast forces before almost casually deciding which battalion to update for the 21st century: “Ah. Now it is time to deploy a Suite in the Old Style.”

Hamelin’s set includes:

Préambule
Allemande
Courante
Air avec agréments
Gavotte et Musette
Gigue

It’s classic Hamelin. The harmonies glisten with subtle, almost “jazzy” dissonances, the general air is good humored, the virtuosity required is formidable. Kudo has the measure of the score; it is simply thrilling to see two generations meet at the piano like this.


It’s still Sunday morning in Brooklyn, so perhaps I just have time to re-watch Kirk Franklin’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, which aired under the auspices of NPR earlier this week. I know little of modern gospel but this intimate performance is seriously grooving. Shaun Martin is on second keyboard, Matthew Ramsey plays bass, Terry Baker is the drummer.

Much is Happening

Tomorrow: Jazz from Detroit, a Virtual Music Marathon, hosted by Mark Stryker, featuring Charles McPherson, Robert Hurst, Regina Carter, and many others.


Next Sunday, March 7, I’m moderating a Bang on a Can watch party for the video premiere of Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, performed by Vicky Chow. The video is by Souki Mehdaoui.

In 2018, I wrote about Sonatra for the New Yorker Culture Desk.

I’m also currently reading Will Robin’s new book about BOAC, Industry.

Back to Babbitt (with Erik Carlson)

In formal notated music, it is the job of the interpreter to make a case for the composer. “Here’s why you should be listening to this.”

It’s just over a decade since Milton Babbitt passed away. Not every composer has much of a post-death performance existence. To live on, a composer needs advocates.

Babbitt has his advocate, an unassuming genius named Erik Carlson, a conceptualist and virtuoso violinist who teaches at UC San Diego.

On Bandcamp, Carlson offers a work in progress, the Slowly Expanding Milton Babbitt Album. Each work is done perfectly. Score in hand, with much editing if need be, Carlson realizes flawless performances of classic Babbitt works.

It makes sense. One of the reasons Babbitt explored the RCA Mark II Synthesizer was simply to hear his music played correctly. In Carlson’s hands, Babbitt’s acoustic music is heard correctly.

I’m frankly a little surprised it makes a difference. In my early 20s, under the guidance of Pat Zimmerli, I listened to a fair amount of Babbitt, for example the early classic of serialism, Composition for Four Instruments from 1948. This music is profoundly disjunct. Part of the composer’s point is to be “as weird as possible.” I liked it, but never thought the interpretation mattered all that much. I figured that “close enough” was “good enough.” I mean, it was just a bunch of mathematically generated atonal notes.

I was wrong. Carlson’s fresh recording with Rachel Beetz, Joshua Rubin, and Michael Nicolas draws me in. There’s a kind of crystalline beauty that causes my eyes and ears to open in wonder. Thanks to Carlson, I’m even listening to the Babbitt string quartets, something I never expected to do…


Unlike many atonal composers, each phrase in Babbitt is reasonably lean. There’s rarely a fiercely dissonant pile-on. Some Babbitt pieces even offer obvious major and minor triads. Joshua Banks Mailman recently published an astounding online essay, “Portmantonality and Babbitt’s Poetics of Double Entendre,” which dives in to the issue of Babbitt’s tonal “puns.” Incredibly, Mailman includes score samples and audio clips so that one can instantly hear the “puns” while reading. Talk about the future of musicology…


The ensemble Babbitt piece I know best is All Set, which I always keep on hand when arguing about how intellectual jazz should be. (The older I get, the grumpier I become, and the more I think we all need to look at Mary Lou Williams’s jazz tree every day and make sure our jazz stems first and foremost from a soulful perspective.) Whenever a student brings in 12-tone jazz or other complicated charts with a notated drum part, I play them All Set, for Babbitt kind of closed the book on that stuff all the way back in 1957.

There were formerly two familiar recordings of All Set. The first had actual jazz musicians like Art Farmer and Bill Evans, while the later one was with Speculum Musicae. When I interviewed Gunther Schuller, Schuller had a lot to say about the process of rehearsing All Set, and we even compared the two recordings.

On the new Erik Carlson-produced issue of All Set, the musicians are

Ryan Muncy, saxophones
Samuel Ewens, trumpet
Dave Nelson, trombone
Kathryn Schulmeister, bass
Andrew Munsey, drums
Sean Dowgray, vibraphone
Aleck Karis, piano

The credits include these cryptic notes:

Recorded by Erik Carlson, Andrew Munsey, Ryan Muncy, Dave Nelson, Samuel Ewens, Sean Dowgray, and Kathryn Schulmeister

Critical listening: Matthew Barber, Ellie Moser, Michael Caterisano, and Jim Baker

This track just showed up recently on Slowly Expanding Milton Babbitt Album, so I suspect All Set has been one of Carlson’s pandemic projects. It is the best All Set so far. The speed is faster than before and each note sings. Perfect music, perfectly realized.


At first glance, the vast page on Carlson’s website, “Recitals,” seems to be a bit in the fictional style of Jorge Luis Borges…except that these conceptual pieces apparently have actually have been “performed,” or will be “performed” in the future.

“patterns, algorithms, sonifications, objects, concepts, etc.”

One example, currently “postponed”

A polyrhythm 1:2:3:4…999:1000, with a single full cycle equaling 1 year in duration

I will play an hour excerpt in real-time, assuming the cycle began at midnight on January 1

TBD

(Re) Stream

photo by Desmond White

“LIVE” AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD: The Billy Hart Quartet will available to watch all weekend long, starting tonight 8 PM EST. Originally streamed on June 14th, 2020, the quartet features Billy Hart on drums, Mark Turner on saxophone, Ethan Iverson on piano, and Ben Street on bass. This was the first band to stream at the Vanguard. The re- broadcast will be available to purchase until Sunday at 8 PM EST.

Village Vanguard website.

Chick Corea

Any Chick Corea performance from the 60’s is in the canon of great jazz. Jeff Williams recently told me about “The Brain,” a track from March 1969. It’s a 12-tone line, a gritty melody, pounding Stravinskian chords, burning blowing. Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette are definitely a “thing” and Bennie Maupin fits right in.

A lot of what Chick Corea played came directly from McCoy Tyner, but his approach had a freshness and a lightness that was distinctive and seductive. There was some kind of basic and intuitive grasp of uptempo clave that sparkled like nobody else. Corea also had serious knowledge of modernist classical music. Indeed, of all the top-tier jazz pianists, Corea may have been the best “student,” someone who checked out and assimilated countless genres from Brazilian to Bartók to the blues on a deep level. On “The Brain”– especially with DeJohnette large and in charge — the balancing act is simply beautiful.

The style on “The Brain” could have been one of the next steps in the music, but other factors intruded. All four of these musicians would be on Bitches Brew later the same year; eventually Corea would be a high-profile Scientologist. (In 2016 Corea completed Scientology’s highest auditing level, Operating Thetan Level 8, for the second time, apparently a rare “feat.”) Chick Corea’s life and music deserves a historian/critic willing to make some tough calls.

Happy Birthday

Today I’m 48.

I’m on the cover of the March DownBeat. Thanks to Ed Enright for the excellent interview/article. Photo by Jimmy Katz.

On March 8, I’m doing a sort of streaming CD release party at Smalls. I couldn’t get the quintet, let alone a big band, so I will be playing Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk tunes trio with Thomas Morgan and Andrew Cyrille. (“In the 21st Century,” you dig?)

More reviews of Bud Powell in the 21st Century: Tim Niland, Richard Kamins.


My bio page is finally updated. Thanks for reading, thanks for listening.


Over the past year, six articles I’ve written stand out:

Shades of Jazz (Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Dewey Redman) for DTM

On Pixar’s Soul for The Nation

Stanley Crouch obit for NPR

Overview of Larry Young and Woody Shaw for JazzTimes

Charlie Parker Centennial for DTM (featuring Charles McPherson, Steve Coleman, Tom Harrell, Mark Turner, John Scofield, Bertha Hope, and Mark Stryker)

Comfort Food (Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin) for DTM

Thanks to my regular editors and advisors, Mark Stryker first and foremost. Sarah Deming is equally essential. Also Hyland Harris, Billy Hart, Lewis Porter, Loren Schoenberg, and probably every other person who ever sat and talked jazz with me…

Weather Report

Books:

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano by Katie Hafner. An absorbing experience! In addition to much about pianos and piano technicians, Hafner documents the career and personal life of a truly eccentric artist. Recommended.

The Sentinel by Lee Child and Andrew Child. I read piles of commercial thrillers and the Jack Reacher series is one of my favorites. I did notice something being “off” in the last book, Blue Moon, so it was not a surprise that his brother has taken over the franchise. Like many fans I was skeptical but…actually, it is just fine. I’ll look for the next installment. (The best “pure” Reachers include Without Fail, The Affair, and The Midnight Line.)

Eddie’s Boy by Thomas Perry. Amazingly, the Butcher’s Boy returns! God bless Thomas Perry. I need to read this again, but it’s certainly top shelf, although I admit I wonder if the master shouldn’t have left it at The Informant. (DTM: “The Professional.”)

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. As a long-time Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, it was time for me to check in with the source. There’s no explicit sex in the book but the whole thing is wildly erotic, with the act of sucking blood offering a coherent metaphor. A central triad of vampires, two men and a girl, is unlike anything else.

“But tell me one thing, one thing from that lofty height. What was it like . . . making love?”

I was walking away from her before I meant to, I was searching like a dim-wilted mortal man for cape and gloves. “You don’t remember?” she asked with perfect calm, as I put my hand on the brass door handle.

I stopped, feeling her eyes on my back, ashamed, and then I turned around and made as if to think, Where am I going, what shall I do, why do I stand here?

“It was something hurried,” I said, trying now to meet her eyes. How perfectly, coldly blue they were. How earnest. “And . . . it was seldom savored . . . something acute that was quickly lost. I think that it was the pale shadow of killing.”

“Ahhh . . .” she said. `Like hurting you as I do now . . . that is also the pale shadow of killing.”

“Yes, madam,” I said to her. “I am inclined to believe that is correct.” And bowing swiftly, I bade her good-night.

After reading the book I watched the movie, which I liked as well. Great music in the movie! When the vampires are playing Mozart-style fortepiano in the old days it is very effective.

I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan. A famous YA thriller. I saw the forgettable slasher flick, the source original is subtle and far more chilling. Indeed, this slender volume is in perfect balance. Bravo.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. I’ve read this three times, each time it is better, more amusing, more uncomfortably prescient. One of a kind.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Third time for this classic as well. Now that I am a little older, the arc of this perfect novel is even more resonant. The blend of humor and melancholy is truly exceptional.


Movies/TV:

Inception, Interstellar, Tenet. I like puzzles and I like action movies, so naturally I have a relationship to the Christopher Nolan collection. Jessica Kiang’s superb review of Tenet in the New York Times explained it perfectly: “…Nolan is, by several exploding football fields, the foremost auteur of the ‘intellectacle,’ which combines popcorn-dropping visual ingenuity with all the sedate satisfactions of a medium-grade Sudoku.”

None of these movies are “good” exactly but they do the job. Tenet is James Bond meets time travel; I saw the reversals coming a mile away, but it was still reasonably satisfying. The two leads, John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, are great.

Some of Nolan’s best moments are comic. I remember laughing out loud in the theater during Memento. The sardonic robot TARS in Interstellar is great; Michael Caine’s snobbish teasing in Tenet works perfectly. Upon rewatch, Inception disappointed by lacking any lightness of tone, despite the overall concept being patently absurd. If Nolan wants to take notes from a jazz blog, I’d advise him to lighten up a few degrees…

Deep Cover. I saw this in the theatre when it came out in 1992. I liked it at the time, but upon revisiting it stands out as one of the best crime flicks of the era.

Stranger Things. Sarah and I enjoyed the first season but that was enough; we didn’t need to press on. Too much yelling by the cast. The monster was amazing, one of the best monster reveals I’ve ever seen.

Dark. At first utterly compelling — incredible music by Ben Frost — but then it all becomes hopelessly convoluted. Recalls Killing Eve, another show that could have been a masterpiece if they had tied it all off in a single season.

Uncut Gems. Speaking of incredible electronic music, Daniel Lopatin does a wonderful job in this edgy Adam Sandler flick. Overall, the movie is excellent, but it’s also not quite the innovative masterpiece some of the critics claim it to be.

Mad Max. What the hell? I was not prepared for the unrepentant artiness of this low-budget action film. The more conventional sequels are all good too, but now I know the original has a truly modernist aesthetic.

Christine. Ok, this was great. I had no idea. Essentially perfect; as of now my favorite Stephen King on film and my favorite John Carpenter movie.

Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes. I’m not a true Holmesian; as a serious crime fiction fan I naturally know the Conan Doyle stories pretty well but haven’t paid attention to most of the adaptations. At the beginning of quarantine I tried out the Benedict Cumberbatch series again, and re-confirmed how the series squanders its remarkable flair by devolving into a soap opera/comic book aesthetic, where we spend all our time investigating the leads rather than crimes. It’s a terrible waste, for the best parts of the first two episodes offer some of my favorite recent television.

A friend has been praising the older Jeremy Brett series for a while, when I finally I tuned in last month, I was shocked at the depth of Brett’s performance and bowled over by the production values overall.

Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Wow, I’d never seen Showgirls before. “So bad it’s good” taken to extremes but the last act is violent and depressing. Basic Instinct, no masterpiece, satisfies with stellar Jerry Goldsmith score and intriguing puzzle plot. Both Paul Verhoeven movies are redeemed for being absolutely of their time and place. (Earlier Verhoeven RoboCop and Total Recall are in my pantheon of absurdist masterpieces.)

I had a little Joe Don Baker moment, watching Charley Varrick, The Outfit, and Edge of Darkness in sequence. Varrick is not quite as strong as I remembered, while The Outfit picked up a star or two in my rating. Both have amazing 1973-era American cars; I love early 70s movies just for the Detroit iron alone.

More significant is Edge of Darkness, the legendary 1985 BBC serial with Bob Peck and Joe Don Baker. Troy Kennedy-Martin created the story and script. Michael Kamen’s evocative score features Eric Clapton. (FWIW, this is my favorite thing Clapton’s ever done.) Directed by Martin Campbell (who also somehow did horrible Mel Gibson remake.)

Edge of Darkness is well in the tradition of a dozen ’70s paranoid thrillers, but with nuclear power as the worrisome threat. The subtleties of the characterizations recall British espionage televideo classics like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Sandbaggers. One of my favorite novelists, Ross Thomas, must have been an influence on Kennedy-Martin, especially on Joe Don Baker’s character, a CIA agent. It’s also very much of its time: Margaret Thatcher appears on TV.