Ethan Iverson in performance, May-September 2022

May 31 — accompanying Rob Schwimmer at Joe’s Pub, Manhattan

June 22 — trio with Anthony Cox and Kevin Washington at Crooners, Minneapolis 

June 28 through July 3 — trio with Ben Street and Nasheet Waits at the Village Vanguard, Manhattan

July 27 — Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the St. Endellion Festival conducted by Emilie Godden, Cornwall

August 5 — trio with Conor Chaplin and Martin France at the Vortex, London

August 10 thru 14 — all-Iverson program (Easy Win, Adagio, Dance Sonata) for Dance Heginbotham at Jacob’s Pillow, the Berkshires

September 5 — trio with Larry Grenadier and Nasheet Waits at the Detroit Jazz Festival

Downbeat review from Ammar Kalia. Fabulous!

Baseball Interlude

I know nothing of the sport, but read a few obits of the legendary Roger Angell, who passed away at 101 this past week. Mark Stryker is a true fan, and linked to this extensive Angell profile of pitcher Bob Gibson, saying, “Here’s the best writing about the best in 1980.”

Again, I don’t really understand baseball, but found Angell’s take on Gibson nothing less than enthralling. One of the themes is race, and there are obvious parallels between Gibson and various jazz greats of the era.

Influences are interesting, especially when admitted in frank terms. From Dwight Garner’s New York Times obit:

The tone of his baseball writing, he once said, was inspired by a now canonical John Updike article, written in 1960, about Ted Williams’s final game at Fenway Park in Boston. “My own baseball writing was still two years away when I first read ‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,’” Mr. Angell wrote, “and though it took me a while to become aware of it, John had already supplied my tone, while also seeming to invite me to try for a good sentence now and then, down the line.”

I dialed up the Updike on the New Yorker site. Again, to my surprise, I was intensely moved by a sportswriter waxing poetic about various long ago games, where statistical excellence is presented as a feat of honor. The essay builds to Williams’s final turn at bat, where the retiring player beat the odds and hit a home run.

John Updike’s imagery here is some of the most striking I’ve ever read.

This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us—stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his hat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky.

Andrew Hill: Shades and Strange Serenade

Andrew Hill never sounded that much like Thelonious Monk, but, like Monk, he was an alternative to conventionally hip and conventionally virtuosic pianists. Also like Monk, Hill was a great composer nurtured by Alfred Lion and Blue Note. Indeed, Lion may have shown more faith in Hill than anybody else, recording something like a dozen sessions from 1964 to 1970. All those LPs have gone into the history books (especially for the compositions, which are finely-wrought and detailed, and usually feature multiple horns) but at the time those early Hill Blue Notes were hardly big sellers.

Hill’s post-Blue Note output in the 70s was a bit scattered and uneven. I don’t know these records well but not all the sidemen are equally good and at times the sonics are uncomfortably raw.

Shades from 1986 was an event, a well-recorded date with the highest level collaborators. As far as I know this is the most “inside” Hill music apart from his mellow trio debut So In Love. While not a tribute album, the swinging prophet Thelonious Monk certainly looms over the date in a manner of pure benediction. Hill’s pieces are simple, mostly on familiar forms, not much like the furiously modernist mixed meter structures heard on Black Fire or Point of Departure. The drummer, Ben Riley, was a consecrated Monk associate. Clifford Jordan is in the bluesy bop Charlie Rouse role, and Rufus Reid is right in there. The set even begins with “Monk’s Glimpse,” a Hill take off on Monk’s “Children’s Song,” which in turn was a riff on the nursery rhyme “This Old Man.” (Riley was the drummer on the original Monk recording.)

Hill’s themes are usually direct, while his improvisations are indirect. This is unlike Monk, who simply swung every beat of every bar, and perhaps more like Herbie Nichols, who also liked to wander around after the head. Of the three, Hill is the most oblique rhythmically, where the very articulation of the beat can be hidden within surreal phrasing. At his best, Hill’s lines have a kind of off-kilter mutter that contain just enough Earl Hines and Bud Powell to “scan.” I adore the opening minutes of “Monk’s Glimpse,” it’s all there in the piano blowing but rearranged just so. Then, after Clifford Jordan comes in to lay down the law, Hill’s comping functions the same way, swinging with avant grace. Riley doesn’t adjust to Hill, he is simply classical perfection in every beat.

“Tripping” is a minor-key mood piece exhibiting the “Spanish Tinge” spoken of by Jelly Roll Morton and others. Hill is from Chicago, where Ahmad Jamal made his mark at the Pershing. Is “Tripping” a bizarre answer to Jamal seen from a great distance? Rufus Reid enjoys his low “D” and the trio vibe is satisfactory throughout. The original tune is not much, indeed, it’s almost a cliché, but the players take it to distant places.

It’s time for some medium-up blues. After the hip theme of “Chilly Mac” there are enjoyable trades between Jordan and Riley. Hill’s solo is another elliptical statement, but he’s never lost and even digs into the time occasionally. Jordan plays another round and damn does he sound good. (Jordan also appears on Mal Waldron’s superb 1981 session What It Is with Cecil McBee and Dannie Richmond, a disc with certain off-kilter yet swinging qualities not unlike Shades.)

Another trio piece, “Ball Square,” is riff that feels like rhythm changes. Herbie Nichols might be a relevant reference, although Nichols would never do the theatrical cut-time minor key passages. Reid even picks up the bow for some Richard Davis-style noise bass.

“Domani” is the most advanced piece on the date, and the only one that recalls the Hill of the 60s Blue Notes. The composition is seriously beautiful but in this case I’m not sure if the mix of personalities comes to a truly fruitful agreement: either Hill needs to straighten out, or the bass and drums need to break up the time a bit more. Jordan seems a bit literal and repetitive in his solo as well. They probably needed to gig for a week first in order to get a really strong take of “Domani.”

“La Verne” is a walking ballad alternating between 3/4 and 4/4, written for Hill’s wife. The waltz has a bit of gospel, while II/Vs in the 4/4 suggest Tadd Dameron. This track seems a bit “normal” for the pianist. In this era Hill was playing this kind of composition in his solo concerts, but unlike the straightforward approach heard here, Hill would totally deconstruct “easy” themes like “La Verne.”

The highlights of Shades are the first three pieces, “Monk’s Glimpse,” “Tripping,” and “Chilly Mac,” which find a perfect mix between the swing of Ben Riley, the firm horn of Clifford Jordan, and the surreal gestures of the leader. The success of Shades seems to have led directly to Hill’s re-signing at Bruce Lundvall’s Blue Note, and Hill resumed making well-rehearsed albums with multiple horns investigating firmly modernist material, first with Blue Note, then with Palmetto.

From the wilderness years of the 70s, I definitely have a favorite, Strange Serenade with Alan Silva and Freddie Waits. When I first got it as a teenager I didn’t like it, but later Frank Kimbrough told me it was a masterpiece, so I listened again. On the one hand, of course, it is avant-garde. (Alan Silva is one of those bass players that you probably wouldn’t want to call for anything else.) But the piano playing is also refined, even almost bland, like mood music gone wrong, especially on the opening “Mist Flower.” This is truly weird stuff.

“Strange Serenade” is a shade more conventional, simply because it is obviously an atonal burner with little fanfares as a head. Freddie Waits was comfortable with any kind of groovy black music from his generation: funk, experimental, swinging, you name it. I believe that Strange Serenade is the longest and most exposed example of Waits doing this kind of multi-directional style. Hill keeps quoting the fanfare in his improvisation and the trio builds to a big finish. A highlight track to be sure.

“Reunion” starts as a waltz (I think) with Waits on abstract brushes. The piano Hill is playing on is not in great shape, and Sliva doesn’t play a written part or changes, so whatever happens is strictly in the mysterious zone. I wouldn’t want to live there every day but there’s something about this record that is really quite perfect. At some point Silva and Waits find a quarter note together and the music lurches forward with nonchalant swing, Hill spinning surreal double-time lines on top.

“Andrew” is a ballad by Laverne Hill. Ok, on this one probably there needed to be less noise bass, or at least Silva could have been turned down in the mix. Waits tries out mallets as a way to make sense of the situation. Once again, a mid-tempo swing evolves out of the thicket, and eventually the record rolls to a reasonably graceful close, although the final piano gestures leave us with more questions than answers.

The greatest Andrew Hill will always be the music with complex arrangements and rehearsed horns, but these two middle-period Soul Notes show how Hill could make really bizarre yet charismatic music in stripped down circumstances. Shades is the swinger, Strange Serenade is the fully oblique. A nice pair of records!

Show Me the Way to the Next Octave Bar

Last week the musical director for the Mark Morris Dance Group, Colin Fowler, was away on bonding leave, so I filled in and played a rep show in Urbana.

One of the great Mark Morris dances is Grand Duo, set to a score of the same name by Lou Harrison. It was an early success for Mark and has remained a definitive crowd-pleaser. Reportedly the Urbana hit was the 484th MMDG performance of Grand Duo. (I played almost one hundred of those gigs myself during my time as MMDG music director in the late ’90s.)

The staff of MMDG musicians always includes great violinists, for the violin part to Grand Duo is fearsome and relentless. Last week it was Georgy Valtchev, a serious virtuoso with a wonderful sonority. However, the piano part is not as hard as it sounds, for some of the fire and brimstone is provided by a technology invented by the composer: the famous Lou Harrison octave bar.

A brief excerpt of me practicing the last movement, “Polka,” with the bar:

The key signature is unusual, a synthetic scale in F-sharp. There are no accidentals in “Polka,” for the full 5 minute piece is in one mode. (The first time one reads the score this key signature is a bit challenging.)

The first page posed with the bar:

The page with bar action heard in excerpt above:

There are several Lou Harrison pieces that use the bar. When I interviewed Keith Jarrett, he complained about the technology for the commissioned piano concerto.

I was having a bit of shoulder piano trouble when he wrote me the Piano Concerto, so I asked him not to write anything percussive. Then he turns around and gives me the “Stampede” movement, which is not just banging with the octave bar but putting it down and picking it up again. He said, “Don’t get muscle-bound.”

At the 2000 Kennedy Center Honors, Mikhail Baryshnikov requested “Polka” from Mark Morris and MMDG. Lo-fi video exists on YouTube. About twelve minutes in, I join violinist Jacqui Carrasco and the spectacular dancers. The other honorees were Angela Lansbury, Clint Eastwood, Placido Domingo, and Chuck Berry; the audience was full of other celebs including the Clintons. Herbie Hancock was there, and he asked to see the octave bar afterwards.

Lupu plays Brahms, Angelich plays Rachmaninoff

In his fascinating reminisces of Radu Lupu, producer Michael Hass describes the torments the late pianist had while recording, but also notes that the Brahms F minor Sonata was, “more or less recorded in a single take.”

Brahms’s three piano sonatas were among his earliest published compositions. They all have their beauties but only the last, Op. 5 in F minor, is firmly established in the repertoire. Young Brahms wrote very thick chords and octaves almost constantly, a kind of symphonic conception for the piano, which means the sonatas are a bit ungrateful to play and certainly harder than they sound. Running scalar passagework was the default setting for Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin — and also beloved by Brahms’s mentor Robert Schumann — but there’s almost no running passagework in the Brahms sonatas. He is closer to the rich melodies of Schubert, but most of Schubert’s chords fit the hand well enough. One needs to wrestle with early Brahms.

The chords are made of granite but there is plenty of youthful exuberance on display over the course of five movements and 50 minutes. Perhaps the longest piano sonata yet composed? Perhaps the first sonata to have more than four movements? Perhaps the first sonata to have a bar of 5/4?

It was published in 1853, the same year as the remarkable Sonata by Franz Liszt. (Together, Liszt and Brahms kick of the “epic sonata” section at the bottom of DTM’s “Wagnerian Piano.”)

The first movement begins Beethoven-style with an unforgettable motto. When straight triads intermingle in the second theme there is something modal or folkloric in the harmony: this is the real Brahms coming through.

Lupu takes the exposition repeat, and plays it the same but somehow a bit different. Every chord is balanced just so, and the whole thing seems like one big melody. It’s twelve minutes but under Lupu’s guidance goes by in a flash.

The second movement is an epic Andante that shocks by starting in A-flat but ending in D-flat. (First time this happened in a piano sonata?) The opening falling thirds are a familiar Brahms conceit, but the the following D-flat themes and development seem quite Wagnerian to this listener.

The Romantic composers took programmatic chances. Schumann put a short quote from Schlegel at the top of his Op. 17 Fantasy, probably thinking of Clara Wieck, later to become Clara Schumann.

Resounding through all the notes
In the earth’s colorful dream
There sounds a faint long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret

Not to be outdone, Brahms puts a bit from Sternau the top of this Andante:

Through evening’s shade, the pale moon gleams
While rapt in love’s ecstatic dreams
Two hearts are fondly beating.

Lupu’s command of line and poetry is breathtaking. Almost an erotic experience, as it should be.

Next is the noisy Scherzo, which has some amazing modulations and a pensive trio. More impressive is the next movement, a death march marked “Intermezzo,” which might be the first occasion Brahms uses this word, a word that would in time become almost exclusive property of this composer. Again, descending thirds in the melody. Lupu’s hands make the drums rattle and the horses neigh with fright.

The Schumann-esque 6/8 finale is diffuse and hard to interpret, with many themes that stop and start. Perhaps the many tremolos are more suitable for strings than pianists, while the many walking chords would sound good on the organ. Famously, one of the tunes, “F-A-E,” is an in-joke with other men about living life apart from women: “Lonely but free.” Brahms was only 20 years old, young and dumb, but he never did marry.

Op. 5 is not a piece I know well. While Lupu didn’t change my prejudice going in — that only the first, second and fourth movements are matchlessly magnificent — he certainly plays it as well can be played.

Along with Birtwistle and Lupu, this week saw the death of Nicholas Angelich. I was not familiar with Angelich’s playing but thought I would try his recording of the Rachmaninoff Études-Tableaux, recorded in 1995 when the pianist was just 25 years old.

Rachmaninoff was a man out of time, a 20th-century composer who did not eagerly join the contemporary search for forbidden sounds. (When asked why he programmed some Debussy, he replied, “I want to show my public this is bad music,” or something to that effect.) One gets a vivid sense of his titanic pianism from the many early lo-fi recordings. (I’m dubious of the piano-rolls and other modern reproductions. The market is flooded with glossy product, but it is best to hear the actual recordings, scratchy ambience and all.)

Rachmaninoff’s orchestral and choral music has value, but in the end, this was a pianist’s pianist who wrote for other pianists.

The Études-Tableaux aren’t completely even in quality but the best of them are sensational. All have a unique perspective, and exhibit not just astonishing instrumental know-how but a mysterious and sardonic wit. Indeed, the pieces can be quite goofy and strange, at times sounding surprisingly like the much younger Prokofiev or Shostakovich. Rachmaninoff was never a modernist but the closest he came was in the Études-Tableaux.

Op. 33

  1. F minor march with completely wrong phrase lengths. Nice.
  2. An icy wind of C major and a glorious Russian tune. Angelich handles the concluding trills perfectly.
  3. After a solemn and utterly creative minor key chorale, the vista clears to pure C major and another fabulous Rach melody.
  4. One of the goofier ones, a horn call gone amuck, with rich counterpoint and a feel almost like stride piano.
  5. A blaze of E-flat minor glory sometimes called “The Snow Storm.” Angelich can play it. Wow.
  6. The heroics continue in major, a stirring parade that reminds me of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition. (Of course, all of Rach’s “Tableaux” are a response to Mussorgsky’s “Pictures.”)
  7. A sad song is garnished with an outsized cadenza.
  8. One of my favorites, an obsessive C-sharp minor cry into the void, with a truly terrifying two-handed run and a final page of chaotic counterpoint.

Op. 39. Conventional wisdom suggests that the second book is even more impressive than the first.

  1. A dark moto perpetuo in C minor with quite extraordinary tonal harmonic progressions created from dissonant intervals.
  2. The longest of either set, an A minor song that wanders around.
  3. Angelich is particularly impressive when a whiplash technique is required. To play this wonderful F-sharp minor etude requires unfathomable courage and willpower.
  4. This B minor journey is another of my favorites. I see a dog sled in Russia, winter, a fox in the snow. In this case I don’t think Angelich needs to play quite this fast and choppy, he could take a slightly more scenic route.
  5. Unlike most of the Études-Tableaux, this E-flat minor song has had some general popular appeal. A beautiful work, resigned to its luxurious fate.
  6. Back to the goofy with a ludicrous episode in A minor. The legend goes that the piece stems from the way Rach would tell the “Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf” fairytale to his daughter. Again, this kind of nervous chatter suits Angelich perfectly. I love it.
  7. Begins as a chorale before transitioning into a menacing tromp. The explosion of bells at the end is unforgettable: Rachmaninoff at the height of his powers.
  8. Anywhere else this modal D minor double-note etude would delight, but it’s a bit of a let down after the previous masterwork. In general there are pacing issues with Rachmaninoff’s books of Preludes and Etudes. They are probably better off curated a few a time than enjoyed as a whole batch.
  9. I’ve never liked the last D major march that much either, but maybe its just me.

Angelich’s later recordings include Brahms, Liszt, Beethoven concertos on a Pleyel piano, and a collaboration with jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon, Different Spaces, which features a piano concerto as well as composed duos for Angelich and Trotignon together.

“Mahler in Progress” with Argento New Music Project

(brief notes made after watching the stream)

Wednesday, April 20, 2022 | 8 PM
Cary Hall, DiMenna Center

Songs by Alma Mahler with text from Alma & Gustav Mahler’s letters

Laue Sommernacht
Ich wandle unter Blumen

Ariadne Greif, voice, Mun-Tzung Wong, piano, and Piers Playfair, narrator

Alma Mahler’s songs are filled with astonishing harmonies, somewhere next to Reger and Zemlinsky. In this semi-staged rendition by the Argento New Music Project, letters written between Alma and Gustav are read between the songs. Gustav is condescending towards Alma, and insists that she give up composition if they are to be wed. Alma agrees, and we lose a composer to the old-fashioned convention of “helpmeet.” This unique presentation has remarkable impact. Greif, Wong, and Playfair played their roles superbly.

Patricia Alessandrini

Canto d’Alma (2018/2020) for soprano, chamber ensemble, and electronics.

Ariadne Greif, soprano, Patricia Alessandrini, electronics, and Argento ensemble

Alessandrini composed this short but substantial mediation specifically for Argento New Music Project inspired by both Alma Mahler’s story and Alma Mahler’s Fünf Lieder. The electronics are quite subtle, with most of the desolate, moaning, disturbing soundscape created by conventional instruments. On top of that nameless horror, Greif’s wordless vocal appears from an infinite distance.

Gustav Mahler

“Purgatorio” and “Scherzo: Nicht zu schnell” from Symphony no. 10, completed by Michel Galante (2022) for 15 musicians (World Premiere)

I confess I don’t know the Symphony no. 10 of Mahler in any of its varied forms or completions. The chamber arrangement is virtuosic and engaging, although I suppose it “lands differently” after the marital Mahler letters at the start of the program. All five moments completed by Galante for this instrumentation will premiere with Argento next season. Brad Siroky was heroic in the exposed trumpet part.

Sang Song

Gretel (2021) for ensemble

I. To the Little House – New York premiere
II. Vein of Shame – World premiere
III. Kindertotenmusik – New York premiere

The second half of the concert focused on Sang Song’s investigation of parricide. His notes explain further:

Gretel is in three movements, the first of which is given the subtitle “To the Little House.” The name “Gretel” in the title, of course, refers to the little sister in Hansel and Gretel. As the absence of her brother’s name in the title suggests, however, this work is far from being a retelling of the classic fairy tale. It is well known that fairy tales are often tinged with dark—even gruesome—undertones. Hansel and Gretel is not an exception: it features heartless parents, attempts at cannibalism and a virtual auto-da-fé. But this 19th century fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm may have an even grimmer undertone.

The original 1812 version of Hansel and Gretel concludes as follows:

“Der Vater freute sich als er sie wieder sah, er hatte keinen vergnügten Tag gehabt, seit seine Kinder fort waren, und ward nun ein reicher Mann. Die Mutter aber war gestorben.”

(“The father rejoiced when he saw them once more, for he had not had a happy day since they had been gone, and now he was a rich man. The mother, however, had died.”)

The cause of the mother’s death is not mentioned in the story, prompting some commentators to propose that she and the witch are (metaphorically?) the same person—with the implication that Gretel may have committed (metaphorical?) matricide when she pushed the witch into the fiery oven.

The second movement, an interlude entitled “Vein of Shame,” begins and ends with theplayback of recordings from the 1993 trial of the Menendez Brothers, who brutally murdered their parents a few years earlier. During the nationally-televised first trial, the brothers’ lawyers introduced the so-called battered-child syndrome as a defense: Lyle and Erik Menendez committed the murders as a result of years of sexual and emotional abuse by their parents. (The “abuse excuse” was not allowed in the retrial and the brothers were subsequently found guilty.)

The third movement, entitled “Kindertotenmusik,” alludes to, and includes quotations from, Gustav Mahler’s 1904 song cycle Kindertotenlieder. The quotes are from the last song “In diesem Wetter!” (“In this weather!”) and are limited to the music roughly corresponding to Mahler’s setting of the following line:

“Sie ruh’n als wie in der Mutter Haus.” (“They’re at peace as if in their mother’s house.”)

In this song, a father berates himself for having allowed his children out in a storm and then tries to take solace in the belief that they are resting like something that could have gone through the mind of Hansel and Gretel’s father? If we can make a connection between Kindertotenlieder and Hansel and Gretel in this manner, then maybe we can also add the Menendez Brothers’ case to the mix by imagining Hansel and Gretel making a journey to the witch-mother’s house to avenge themselves for the abuse they had sustained in the past. (Incidentally, while the German word “Kindertotenlieder” is often translated as “Songs on the Death of Children,” the German expression is quite ambiguous in that it can denote anything relating to children and death.)

By pulling these three seemingly disparate threads together, Gretel attempts to give you a glimpse of how one’s childlike innocence gets destroyed, leaving a deep, indelible scar in the individual’s psyche.

— Sang Song

The music begins slowly, the noises of Gretel’s wood suggested by percussion and rustling strings. Spare piano octaves almost find a tune, which gradually gets reinforced by the ensemble. The tension rises gracefully and naturally, with the piano remaining in charge of the stark melodic argument. I like Song’s harmonic ear, it is dissonant but quite precise. A kind of macabre polka concludes the narrative.

As explained in the notes, the second movement has audio from the Menendez trial. Can modernist chamber music really elucidate this discussion or command this terrain? Song does his best, or in this case, his worst, with horrifying slithers in the strings, clusters in the piano, and an innocent woodwind theme that soon becomes debased.

Eventually sharp “shots” from the musicians are juxtaposed against the initial 911 call, a transition to the Mahler quote from Kindertotenlieder, a tune that then cycles in a lonely fashion against the “guns” of the strings.

“Mahler in Progress” makes good on its promise to curate a contemporary program that dialogues with the past in a provocative way.

Birtwistle and Lupu

Harrison Birtwistle passed away yesterday at 87, Radu Lupu the day before at 76. Birtwistle was one of the last bonafide masters of thorny, post-war modernist composition, and Lupu was adored for his lyrical interpretations of core piano repertoire, especially the Germanic romantics Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms.

As my jazz career took center stage, including writing about jazz, my day-to-day involvement with the European tradition has lessened. But when I was younger, I explored as much as I could. I watched several Lupu recitals in Carnegie Hall in the 1990s and attended the 2005 talk by Birtwistle (hosted by Ara Guzelimian) in Zankel Hall.

Lupu taught me the Schubert piano sonatas; indeed, I found his records so wonderful that I have rarely listened to anyone else play them. At one point his traversal of the G major Sonata was in constant rotation. Of the live performances, I remember the A minor sonata D.784 best. Lupu may have had a reputation for making a pretty sound, but he dashed off the “unplayable” final octaves in fearless and note-perfect fashion.

Just recently I discussed the famous recording of Schubert Fantasy in collaboration with Murray Perahia on DTM.

Birtwistle was an ideal modernist, theatrical and terrible, a cascade of atonal notes somehow bought and paid for by integrity of the discourse. I wrote up one of his acclaimed masterworks, The Triumph of Time, for DTM, and also reviewed the lovely ECM chamber music anthology for Talkhouse.

Harrison’s Clocks, from 1997-98, is one of the few piano pieces from that era and generation that can stand next to the Ligeti etudes. (I’ve written elsewhere, “Together, Ligeti and Birtwistle have final word on abrasive mechanical virtuosity in the analog era, before the human race migrated to digital and everything evened out.”) Panic is a kind of furious saxophone concerto: the recording with virtuoso John Harle and respected avant-garde jazz drummer Paul Clarvis is terrific. (Clarvis gets to improvise a bit.)

Upon learning of their passing, I thought I should listen carefully to two performances and pieces that I hadn’t heard before. First, I consulted my masters on Twitter.

Marc-André Hamelin: “I remember we were both part of a multi- piano concert way back in 1991, and amid the ensemble pieces there were some solos. He ended the evening playing the five posthumous variations from Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. Time stopped. #RipRaduLupu.”

Thomas Adès: “Harrison Birtwistle once said of Messiaen, ‘when he dies the whole house of cards will fall down.’ I feel a bit like it has fallen today,” with a link to Silbury Air.

I don’t recall hearing Lupu in Schumann and Silbury Air is new to me. Perfect…

While looking for Lupu on video — there’s not much without an orchestra — I came across a live recording, essentially a bootleg, of Schumann’s Humoreske from 1983. A comparison of the first minute or so with the Decca studio recording confirms my suspicion. There’s nothing wrong with the studio rendition, but the sense of pure magic in the live recording is something else entirely. The piano is a bit out of tune and Lupu hits a few wrong notes, but such blemishes only add to the sense of occasion.

Humoreske is in seven unconventional movements, lasts about half an hour, and is notoriously difficult to interpret. The music is obsessive and repetitive, a puzzle box hovering in a strange, shimmering outline. Many great postwar pianists have recorded Humoreske, but it is programmed far less often than the Fantasy, Kreisleriana, or other more familiar Schumann works.

“Einfach” begins with a glorious tune. Lupu isn’t scared to desynchronize the hands slightly when pitting the soprano against the bass. When the faster passagework starts, the pianist sounds pleasingly manic, a happy person who might just be a little too happy.

“Hastig” offers a unique surreal touch, an inner melody that the pianist should hear but not play.

Schumann is both certain and uncertain at the same time. Are these almost-banal progressions digressions or the meat of the matter? Lupu lives in the territory of “why?” perfectly.

“Einfach und zart” is the first moment of true stillness, a G minor song perfect for the poetic pianist. The middle “Intemezzo” uses a title taken up many times by Brahms, but this earlier iteration sounds a bit like a Cramer etude given rare breadth and depth. The final Neapolitan cadence is stunning.

“Innig.” When my teacher Sophia Rosoff told me to listen to Humoresque, she said I would like the jazzy harmonies and rhythms. “Inning” begins like an American pop song from the ’30s, and then some of the later progressions are worthy of a modernist like Paul Bley.

Perhaps none of the rhythms would confuse a jazz musician, but there are surprising syncopations throughout, including in “Sehr lebhaft.” I suspect these syncopations were all-but-impossible for 19th-century European musicians.

The structure is wayward enough already, but Schumann goes all in to finish. “Mit einigem Pomp” is a march, a moment of confused clarity, with Lupu delivering the requisite fire and brimstone. Then “Zum Beschluss” (“To the resolution”) wanders around hill and dale, spinning diminished chords from every angle. Lupu’s commitment is unflagging while guiding the listener to the final triumph.

Harrison Birtwistle tried to avoid being a member of the English establishment, but he ended up getting many major commissions and a knighthood anyway. Some of his pieces reference English history, for example Silbury Air.

The Neolithic monument Silbury Hill is in Wiltshire.

(picture stolen from “visit Wiltshire” website)

I wrote before: Birtwistle’s “atonal language has an unusual base: monody and organum, simple ancient chants harmonized in fourths and fifths. Birtwistle takes that basic material, pulverizes it, and throws it into new constellations. This chant-like aspect of his material is seldom obvious, yet it must be why Birtwistle’s melodies and harmonies have such a distinctive sound.”

Silbury Air is a process piece, where rhythms and melodies doggedly follow mechanical paths leading nowhere. The joy is in the journey, and the various beats and pulses are blessedly clear. In its way, this is a forthright and accessible work.

From David Beard’s comment: “Birtwistle began his composition with a table, or ‘pulse labyrinth’, which comprised various speeds and metres. He then passed through the labyrinth as he composed, his direction guided by a set of rules and proportionally related tempos that ensured relatively smooth transitions, like the gearbox in a car.”

I’m not surprised that Adès likes this piece, for Silbury Air might foreshadow Adès’s own work. The scoring of the percussion section, especially the temple blocks, reminds me of something a bit similar in Adès’s Asyla.

The accumulation of fast repeating notes going at slightly different rates is in the tradition of Ligeti’s “insect music.” And, as usual, one can just perceive Mr. Stravinsky through the primeval English mist as well. Still, Birtwistle has his thing, which is one of the best things ever. What a pleasure to listen two different recordings of Silbury Air streaming online, the older version with London Sinfonietta and Elgar Howarth, the more recent from Sydney Alpha Ensemble and David Stanhope.

The work concludes in an unforgettable manner with four stark chords that the harp rings alone. Just brilliant. Yeah baby. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

(The score of Silbury Air can be seen/followed at the official Universal Edition page.)

Charnett Moffett, RIP

The Lord Discography lists 159 sessions, many of which are from peak “Young Lion” years, when the record industry exploded with hot acoustic jazz made by tender talent.

Charnett Moffett appeared on one song on Branford Marsalis’s first album, Scenes in the City, at the age of sixteen, before reaching immortality a season or two later when recording the inarguable masterpiece of that scene and era, Wynton Marsalis’s Black Codes (from the Underground). This famous session remains one of the very best places to hear the mind-bending attack squad of Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts in full regalia — yet the concluding casual yet profound trumpet/bass duet on “Blues,” originally a hidden track, remains an album highlight. Just sensational bass playing: big swing, tone, and vibe.

Moffett is also present on two of my favorite Branford tracks, “Dienda” and “Strike Up the Band,” both from Royal Garden Blues (1986) — “Strike Up the Band” has amazing rhythm section interaction, and Moffett is thankfully up in the mix — and plays on most of Kenny Kirkland’s one official album as a leader, Kenny Kirkland (1991). I got to NYC too late to see much of this era live, but I did manage to take in a few nights of Kirkland, Moffett, and Tain trio at Zinno’s in 1993 or so, a moment that remains a truly cherished memory.

For some, Mulgrew Miller’s Wingspan (1988, with Kenny Garrett, Steve Nelson, and Tony Reedus) remains Miller’s best album. Miller’s fast blues “The Eleventh Hour” is abstract and fierce, the Wayne Shorter/Herbie Hancock modernist tradition taken to a fresh extreme, with Moffett’s secure walking line holding it together just as effectively as Ron Carter in the original iteration. It made all the sense in the world for Moffett and Miller to join the epic Tony Williams acoustic group with Billy Pierce and Wallace Roney, recording the valuable Blue Note LPs Civilization (1986) and Angel Street (1988). Moffett, Miller, and Williams all helped ignite Roney’s debut Verses (1987), an early example of Gary Thomas in notably strong form.

From an entirely different corner, there are those whose sun rises and sets to the soundtrack of Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages (1991), a noisy yet swinging love-in starring Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones. Moffett sounds totally comfortable straddling the generations; the hook-up with Jones on the opening “Promises Kept” is legitimate, and then Moffett takes a killing solo as well.

Moffett came by his avant-garde tendencies honestly. At the age of eight, he was playing second bass in the Moffett Family Jazz Band. His father, drummer Charles Moffett, was an accredited Ornette Coleman alum, and the 1975 recording of this ensemble — comprised mostly of father Moffett’s children –has a true harmolodic spirit. (Personnel according to Lord: Mondre Moffett (tp,flhrn,bar-hrn) Charles Moffett, Jr. (as,ts) Charnett Moffett (b,tp) Patrick McCarthy (b) Charles Moffett (d,perc,tp) Codaryl “Cody” Moffett (perc).)

The family would keep playing music together, and the year before Black Codes, Charnett and Charles Moffett both appeared on Frank Lowe’s Decision in Paradise (1984) a seriously underrated disc with Don Cherry, Grachan Moncur III, and Geri Allen. In time, Ornette Coleman himself would tap Charnett Moffett for Coleman’s final studio statement, the 1996 companion releases Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women, featuring a quartet with Geri Allen and Denardo Coleman. I personally have always found these ’96 sessions a bit of a tough listen, but I am glad they are there.

In the ’90s, Moffett played and recorded with the biggest names in the industry: Dianne Reeves, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Garrett, and many others. At some point Moffett’s work as a sideman started taking a backseat to his aspirations as a leader. His prodigious debut, Net Man (1987), suggested that Moffett saw himself less of a Paul Chambers or a Ron Carter and more like a Marcus Miller or a Victor Bailey. The latter day releases for Motema Music — the latest, Round the World (2020), features folk/rock singer Jana Herzen — are sweet but perhaps a bit unchallenging. The many press photos of Moffett online feature the electric bass just as much as the acoustic.

Charnett Moffett is gone at 54. Far too soon, and there is a dull feeling of unrealized potential. For me, Moffett will always be an important part of the sound of the late ’80s, somebody who could stand up next to Tain and Kenny Kirkland and also deal with a greasy blues. At the moment I’m listening to Donald Brown’s The Sweetest Sounds (1988) with Moffett, Steve Nelson and Alan Dawson. It’s really beautiful.