Bang on a Can

Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace by William Robin is a riveting history of art and business in the 80’s and 90’s. It reads like a thriller: recommended.

While reading I also caught up with more of the extensive repertoire composed and curated by David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, that was good to do as well.

Robin occasionally pans out from BOAC to the larger spectrum; the chapter how the hit recording of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony affected the record industry was revelatory.

Alex Ross has more on Industry, as does the relevant Robin webpage.

It was good to read Industry ahead of the Bang on a Can watch party I’m moderating tomorrow, featuring 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.

Another important streaming event: Alvin Singleton!

From Schott email: “Eight soloists from the Curtis Institute of Music’s Ensemble 20/21 will perform composer-in-residence Alvin Singleton’s complete Argoru series of solo masterworks on Saturday, March 6 as part of a “Portrait of Alvin Singleton” concert. Click here to register for a link to view the performance online. Additionally, on March 7, the concert will be broadcast from the Curtis Institute of Music’s Facebook Page and student performers who were coached on the Argoru series by Mr. Singleton himself will respond in real-time to questions from the audience.”

DTM: Interview with Alvin Singleton.

The Third Symphony, that omni-present standard bearer of “holy minimalism,” may have obscured the rest of Górecki’s canon. Mark Morris introduced me to the short Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra, comprised of two shocking and delightful movements.

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:

Air avec agréments
Gavotte et Musette

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


(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…