Universal Remonster 4 (or: To Click or Not to Click)

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The year is coming to a bitter end. 2016 was bad, 2017 is going to be much worse. Impossible to imagine how it will all go down. There’s a harrowing Thomas Adès work from 1999, America: A Prophecy, that I’ve never audited properly, partly because I was unwilling to accept such a dark vision of my country. Well, I guess now’s the time to order the study score…

(Update: In response to the above, Alex Ross shared a blurb from his year-end recap in the New Yorker:

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We can only hope this time Adès is less prophetic.)

Perhaps a bit selfishly, I worry about high culture. This past year I noticed how much harder it was to pay attention to the more esoteric arts as the relentless political drama unfolded just a tab away.

The papers know we don’t care as much. Ben Ratliff in New York, Mark Stryker in Detroit, Matthew Guerrieri in Boston: Three of my favorite writers no longer have a steady city beat helping drive a narrative that jazz and classical music are part of the conversation.

(There are, of course, many other great critics in all sorts of genres who have lost jobs in recent years as well.)

So. One thing to do is make sure to share stuff you think is at least halfway decent. Keep clicking and sharing. I’m not on Facebook, so I don’t know the protocols there, but I’m surprised when I see so many good musicians on Twitter who never share an article about a musician (or any other kind of relatively obscure but cool artist) unless it concerns themselves.

Trust me, the bosses at every news organization know exactly how many eyes have seen any given dance review or poetry essay. Click! Share! We are all in this together. Click and share even if you don’t read the whole thing or if you disagree with certain aspects of any given article. At the top of the next century we don’t want Star Wars movies and video games to be the only culture left.

New music resource: The Log Journal. This is great! Of special interest to jazz types are the conversations with Vijay Iyer/Wadada Smith (by Tom Moon) and Tim Berne (by Steve Smith). But there’s a lot about recent classical music, too.

Older resource still going: Point of Departure. How thrilling to at last have an interview with Abdul Wadud (by Joel Wanek and Tomeka Reid). PoD’s editor Bill Shoemaker also offers an interesting overview of the Wildflowers series from the 70s.

And, really, I should link to NewMusicBox more often as well. Frank J. Oteri introduces Nicole Mitchell’s Endless Possibilities. Patrick Zimmerli offers an extended look at what makes for lasting organ repertoire.

Ben Ratliff: “Jazz Hate,” a much-needed takedown of La-La Land.

Fred Kaplan reviews “new” Erroll Garner.

Nate Chinen: Listen to Jazz’s Timeless Elders.

George Grella reviews Peter Serkin (damn, wish I could have seen this).

Anthony Tommasini meets Daniil Trifonov.

Will Robin offers a compelling guide to living women opera composers.

Woody Haut looks and listens to the noir jazz world of David Goodis.

In the recent newsletter Floyd Camembert Reports, I tell the story of how I first got to play at the Village Vanguard. Sign up and I’ll send it along…

Classical ECM

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Steve Reich, The ECM Recordings (3 CD set)

Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century

Kim Kashkashian and Lera Auerbach, Arcanum – Dmitri Shostakovich, Lera Auerbach

Miranda Cuckson, Blair McMillen, Bela Bartók, Alfred Schnittke, Witold Lutoslawski

Manfred Eicher’s label began documenting jazz and improvised music in 1969 with Mal Waldron’s Free at Last. About a decade later ECM got involved with classical and fully-notated music as well, beginning with Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich. Just out is a lovely box that anthologies all of Reich’s ECM output including Music for a Large Ensemble, Octet, Violin Phase, and Tehillim. It’s essential music, with Paul Griffiths’s insightful new liner notes being another reason to acquire this specific collection.

During this era Reich still had real intimacy with the performers. The ensemble on Tehillim (which remains my personal favorite Reich composition) was a working band made up of great musicians with ties to jazz and world music including Jay Clayton and Glen Velez. The later Nonesuch recording is “classical music” compared to this more folkloric and jazzy effort. The other indisputable masterpiece in the box is Music for 18 Musicians, partly thanks to the sheer beauty of the recorded sound.

Of course ECM is renowned for quality sound reproduction, especially in genres compatible with ambient reverberation. The brand new recording The Fifth Century is perfect for the label, a meditative work for chorus and saxophone quartet.

I’m not that familiar with Gavin Bryars, nor have I heard his previous ECM releases. For some reason I thought he was in the “experimental music” or “post-minimalist” camp. To my surprise and delight The Fifth Century is rich with conventional harmony exploited by a master composer unafraid of high craft.

Bryars himself namechecks John Dowland and John Tavener; other references might include Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells. (Howells is perhaps especially relevant to the a cappella women-only Two Love Songs encoring after The Fifth Century.) The librettist is 17th-century English mystic Thomas Traherne. In his excellent liner notes, Brian Morton (who I know best as the knowledgeable British jazz critic who co-wrote the indispensable Penguin Guide to Jazz with Richard Cook) begins with a scene from a famous spy novel, The Honorable Schoolboy by John le Carré.

All this is to say this is some real English material, except that the work is performed by American forces, the mixed choir of The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally along with the PRISM saxophone quartet. Each and every member of both groups is a master of pure tone untouched by vibrato.

The whole cycle of The Fifth Century is beautiful, but a standout track is “Eternity is a Mysterious Absence of Times and Ages,” which just suspends and sustains, the voices and horns melting and moving imperceptibly through the void. It’s hard to believe these foggy sounds are saxophones, they seem to emit from mother earth herself.

ECM’s biggest classical music successes have been with living composers who explicitly reject high modernism: first Reich, then Arvo Pärt. Bryars can also be seen in that continuum, and there’s at least a fighting chance (if it got used in a movie or something) that The Fifth Century could get a foothold in popular culture in the way that Music for 18 Musicians and Tabula Rasa did.

However Eicher has not repudiated those making a valuable contribution with comparatively inaccessible formal music. In the ECM New Series catalog there are thorny gems like Herbert Henck’s traversal of Jean Barraqué’s brutal Sonate pour Piano and a great disc of chamber music by Harrison Birtwistle (which I reviewed for The Talkhouse).

Also just out is Kim Kashkashian and Lera Auerbach’s Arcanum. Auerbach’s own composition is in the Russian tradition of Shostakovich and Schnittke, so she is a natural for arranging Shostakovich’s ironic and amusing 24 Preludes for viola with piano. Auerbach’s treatment is straightforward, intended to give violists something to pair with Shostakovich’s ultimate statement, the Viola Sonata. In this case it’s a good feature for Kashkashian’s dark sound and effortless facility.

More important is Auerbach’s major work Arcanum, a kind of sonata in four well-wrought movements. According to Auerbach, Arcanum’s topics are intuition and death. A certain amount of expected passionate gloom motivates the first two selections, “Advenio” and “Cinis.” Goblins appear in the scherzo “Postermo,” and I’ll be dammed if there isn’t a proper Beethoven-ish transfiguration of minor into major. Like Schnittke, key centers are undermined through theatrical dissonances: Kashkashian has to reach up top for a final unresolved note in “Postermo,” a special effect she has to do an octave higher to close the searching “Adempte.”

While essentially a modernist and abstract piece, Arcanum shows there is still plenty to work with when a composer of Auerbach’s subtlety harnesses the ancient forces of tonality. Auerbach’s a wonderful pianist as well (her stunning solo album Preludes and Dreams makes the case for her being a significant virtuoso) and Kashkashian sounds delighted to premiere a major contribution to the relatively restricted repertoire for her instrument.

Like The Fifth Century, Arcanum again points out how crucial ECM is to presenting the best of current formal composition.

Earlier this year the label offered Miranda Cuckson and Blair McMillen in a program of Bartók, Schnittke, and Lutoslawski. It is comparatively unusual for Eicher to record New York classical musicians in standard repertoire but there is certainly no reason why he shouldn’t: Cuckson and McMillen are both in the top echelon of the town’s freelancers, musicians who seemingly can play anything.

Cuckson has an interesting mind. She pens valuable liner notes and her commitment to modernity has rivaled Paul Zukofsky, the elder violin star/curator of New York new music. However, it is hard to imagine Zukofsky recording a solo effort with as much natural charisma as Cuckson’s extraordinary microtonal recital Melting the Darkness (with works by Xenakis, Haas, Bianchi,  Burns, Sigman, Perez-Velasquez, and Rowe).

For ECM Cuckson first appeared on Vijay Iyer’s Mutations, a work closer to a modernistic classical ethos than jazz, yet also an occasion that suggests Cuckson’s versatility across the full NYC spectrum.

The current recording is mostly concerned with reasonably obdurate pieces. Bartók’s Sonata no. 2 for Violin and Piano is a masterpiece: it’s also about as far as the composer got in terms of transfiguring folk influences into unrelenting modernism. To make the austerities acceptable a kind of rhapsodic freedom is required, and Cuckson and McMillen certainly deliver the goods.

Alfred Schnittke first announced his “polystylism” in his 1968 Violin Sonata No. 2, “Quasi una Sonata.” The straight G minor piano stings bounce against disjunct dissonances. I’ve heard this work a few times. While Schnittke himself liked it enough to re-orchestrate for chamber ensemble and Cuckson writes of the inspiration of first learning it during college, I myself don’t feel that it is fully cooked, at least compared to the many Schnittke masterpieces of the 70’s and 80’s. However there’s no doubt it needs the occasional airing, at the least to help show how this genius arrived at his future path.

The violin and piano Partita by Lutoslawski predated his orchestration as Partita for Violin and Orchestra for Anne-Sophie Mutter. The original instrumentation helps disclose Bartókian affinities in the rhythmic sections, and perhaps shockingly even a hint of American blues in the “Largo.” The work as a whole is an easy and fun listen. Those new to complex classical music wishing to explore this excellent disc might want to start with the Lutoslawski, who (in this instance) expresses abstract ideas in the most direct manner.

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A shout out to the marvelous pianist Blair McMillen, who I keep missing chances to see live. I also keep waiting for solo CDs of all this wonderful new and old music Blair plays about town and all of the world. Alvin Singleton told me that a recent McMillen performance of Singleton’s “In My Own Skin” was “unbelievably powerful.”

I haven’t connected with you yet, Blair, but I expect you’ll see this blog post one way or the other, so I’m just letting you know, I have my eye out…

Universal Remonster 3

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Too much to read about politics, and too much of is too depressing, but both these are really great:

Alex Ross pulls the threads together.

Tessie Mc: “The America many professionally smart people woke up to last week is the America many of us have already lived in for at least as long as this memory is shut up in my bones.”

A profound blow to the general coverage of jazz (especially in Detroit, but frankly also nationwide): Mark Stryker is leaving the Detroit Free Press. However, Styker’s forthcoming book on Detroit jazz is sure to be sensational.

Matthew Guerrieri has a new home, which offers a long and fascinating analysis of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms that is absolutely Soho the Dog at his best. Stick with it: there’s a big payoff.

Nick Marino has done us all a service with this photo essay in GQ about well-dressed jazz cats.

Jeff McGregor is transcribing solos shortly after they go down at the SmallsLive Education Blog. We are definitely living in the 21st century!

Steve Wallace has been offering valuable blogging about jazz, for example his overview of Carl Perkins. (Skip to “Bounce” for discussion about music.)

This Christopher Niemann excerpt from Sunday Sketching is helpful.

Sarah Weinman seldom offers a personal essay, but  The Year of Addition and Subtraction is both sad and musical.

Langdon Clay’s photos of cars in 70’s NYC are my kind of thing. Anika Burgess offers a preview of a forthcoming coffee table book. (I bought two copies, one for a Xmas gift.)

Mark Anthony Neal: Come Back, Chester Himes.

RIP authentic bebopper Hod O’Brien, who I saw about a year or two ago at Mezzrow and still was sounding great. Doug Ramsey reports.

RIP smooth Robert Vaughn.  Rod McPhee’s obit is a fun read.

RIP Pauline Oliveros, who was the real deal. Steve Smith is excellent.

RIP Mose Allison. While best known for his later songs I like hearing Mose play bebop piano with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and others in the 50’s. Mose was also an influence on Keith Jarrett, kind of the “down home white boy” thing. (Paul Motian played with Mose before Keith.) Richard Williams offers an interesting perspective:  Nate Chinen’s official report is thorough.

Nate also tweeted a Mose Allison lyric line that sums it all up: “I don’t worry ’bout a thing… ‘Cause I know nothing’s gonna be alright.”

The Last Gig

I got to the Vanguard early last night because I wanted to see how it all went down.

A few years ago, I asked Barry Harris how many trio gigs he had played in New York with another drummer besides Leroy Williams since their first record, 1969’s Magnificent! He thought about it for a moment and replied, “One.”

The bass chair has been held by Ray Drummond for a couple of years now, a perfect solution. (Previous iterations of Chuck Israels and Earl May had been hotly debated by Harris fans.) So there was no surprise that there was no rehearsal and certainly no soundcheck for the group last night. Whatever Harris wants to play, everyone has done it already or can learn it quickly enough.

Around 8 PM Drummond and Williams showed up and set up onstage. A few minutes later Barry (who is turning 87 next week) was escorted down the steep Vanguard stairs. He went straight to the side of the stage, drummer’s corner: No need to relax in the kitchen. At 8:30 the lights went off and the audience quieted down. Still seated, Barry announced, unseen and off-mike, “On bass: Ray Drummond!” Applause. “On drums: Leroy Williams!” Applause. “On piano: the wonderful! the magnificent! the eloquent! the amazing! Barry Harris!” and moved to the Steinway.

“This first number is, as always, one for the ladies.” The trio’s got one really serious gait left in their pocket, which is medium slow swing. “She” moved like a sinuous lizard baking in the sun. No one alive can do it better.

The point is simply that every articulation, every note, every essential aesthetic choice, is authentic. Barry’s lines have always been vocal: these days the announce mic is right by his head the whole time, so you can hear just how singing (not to mention grunting) it all really is. And swinging! For almost 50 years Barry and Leroy have been trying to out-late each other on those upbeats. Ok, at this point it is probably slowing down a bit here and there but, damn, that is some mystical placement.

For the second number Barry said, “I want to see if I can still play fast,” and jumped into “Just One of Those Things.” He’s not really firing like he used to, but the intention of every bebop line was still utterly correct on a primeval level.

For many years I slept on Barry Harris. I liked him but it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I started realizing how heavy he really is. He’s a contentious character, a man who sees the evolution of this music since 1954 as mostly a mistake. But the other side of it is that this music only truly exists when a master is making it right in front of you.

The trio is at the club through Sunday.

UPDATE: After posting, Mark Stryker sent along this clip, which has the vibe of Barry today. Great camera angle! I just stole a voicing or two. 

Violins, Veils, Tears

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A favorite moment in C# minor, when Jochanaan rejects Salome and returns to his cistern

Grand Opera is a rich tapestry of not just the work itself but also any given opera’s reception and performance history. The story of Richard Strauss’s Salome is especially relevant both to political freedom and musical evolution: Oscar Wilde was in jail for “Gross indecency with men” at the time of the debut of Wilde’s play Salome (and future Strauss libretto); Arnold Schoenberg, Giacomo Puccini, Alban Berg, and Gustav Mahler were at the Austrian premiere in 1907; the opera was banned in various places; the chromatic and even polytonal harmony has vexed music theorists for a century; even last night at the Met the audience got to enjoy the mildly lewd question of, “Are we going to see the star get naked?”

Great art remains timeless. Strauss’s music is mostly sublime and Wilde’s pre-Freudian family psychodrama rings disturbingly true. Indeed, while looking at rich and fat Herodes (wonderful Gerhard Siegel) in charge of his amoral family, it was impossible not to think of a pack of Trumps a few blocks away in their Tower.

The flaw in the opera is the “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Strauss’s music is frankly crass Orientalism, and the final effect is really no more profound than the obligatory “underworld characters in a Moscow strip club” scene found in most modern action movies. Still, Patricia Racette danced with grace.

More importantly, Racette sang and and acted this role of roles with beauty and fire. Jürgen Flimm’s production (designed by Santo Loquasto) was solid and professional. A new touch were grim and silent winged figures that slowly gathered after Salome’s demand for a head on a charger. These harbingers of death were especially effective in concord with James F. Ingalls’s superb lighting. In the pit 105 musicians unified under Johannes Debus.

Everyone should see Grand Opera at least once a year, there’s nothing else like it. Salome runs though December 28. Many thanks to Met percussionist Jason Haaheim, who also appears in a previous post about Elektra at the Met.

 

Give the Drummer Some

Kudos to Cindy McGuirl for releasing the absolutely essential The Compositions of Paul Motian, Volume 1: 1973-1989. Full details at Uncle Paul’s Jazz Closet.

This is the best folio of a major jazz composer I’ve ever seen, partially just because the charts are in the composer’s own hand. Comparing the score to the record answers all questions. Motian’s script is gorgeous.

Cindy will release the second volume if enough copies of the first volume sell. You know what to do.

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Paul’s death left a big hole in the scene. The drummer who has kind of eased into a new prominence and perhaps is even taking over some of Paul’s duties is the very great Andrew Cyrille. Thanks to Nate Chinen for an inspiring overview of Andrew’s music in the New York Times pegged to a pair of fabulous new CDs.

John Coltrane called his late music not “free” or “rubato” but “multi-directional.” Joe Lovano told me something profound about Cyrille, “All the tempos are one tempo.” When I asked Andrew directly about his feel, he said, “You just simmer the vegetables on the grill.”

I’ve been enjoying both Proximity and The Declaration of Musical Independence. The first is a brilliant duo with Bill McHenry. Bill has a profound understanding of melody, and this bare bones session brings out something really correct in Bill’s playing.

ECM has a long track record of getting the most mellow and ambient work out of avant-garde masters. The Declaration of Musical Independence continues in this tradition. It’s impossible to imagine a more listenable set of experimental music. Bill Frisell is a perfect choice; Richard Teitelbaum adds just enough crunch; Ben Street is wayward and mysterious.

Aidan Levy also did a nice job getting more commentary from Andrew about his discography in a Bright Moments feature.

Action and Reaction

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LBGT pride day earlier this year (NYC)

In Newcastle two nights ago: slept lightly for an hour before waking up in a sweat: checked phone and Trump was in ascendance.

Didn’t get back to sleep: walked through the day in a depressed daze: almost left my passport in airport lounge (an obvious Freudian slip).

There are questions about the Electoral College and a weakened Voting Rights Act, not to mention active participation of the previously unthinkable trinity of the KKK, the KGB, and the FBI.

Still, no matter how you slice it, the result was a stark reminder that every time there is an atrocity, many “regular” humans signed off on the work permit.

However, today I feel better. Indeed, I woke up feeling strangely optimistic. If Clinton had won perhaps the progressives would have settled and become lazy. Now we have something to unify many more of us.

I just signed up for the Article 20 Network, a new group dedicated to protecting peaceful assembly.

My previous missive about the relationship of Steinway to Trump stopped short of a call to action for pianists, mainly because we all thought Clinton had it in the bag.

Now that the worst has happened, I do call on a consortium of high-profile Steinway artists to join forces and repudiate that relationship. You can play your Rachmaninoff concertos on new Fazolis, Yamahas, and Bosendorfers — and of course older Steinways — just fine.

Courtney Parker West: On “Woke” White People Advertising their Shock that Racism just won a Presidency.