Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Burgeoning organ quartet makes an impact at the Jazz Kitchen

Steve Snyder at his other instrument, the piano, in a shot from a DePauw promotional video.
In only its second major local outing, Prime Vintage gave notice it could be a force to be reckoned with in the area's small-group jazz scene, especially since it fills a void in the organ-and-guitar-centered genre.

The shade of Mel Rhyne must be pleased.

Steve Snyder, director of jazz ensembles at DePauw University, is a lifelong pianist who added the Hammond B3 organ to his arsenal as a performer about 10 years ago. Teaching at a university in eastern Kentucky, he serendipitously found a way to address the problem of there being too few bassists in the area. "I came across an organ that hadn't been played in years," he said between Jazz Kitchen sets Tuesday evening, "in a practice room that no one ever used." (The B3 encourages the player to supply his own bass line.)

The organ provided what had been missing as Snyder gigged around off-campus. Since 2014, the Greencastle university has been his home base. He's specialized increasingly on organ, and played the Kitchen's instrument Tuesday in the second appearance there of his quartet, Prime Vintage.

He chose the name to emphasize a desire to model his small group after the heyday of jazz organ in the 1950s and 1960s, when the likes of Jimmy Smith and Larry Young were making waves. He has worked recently with Indianapolis musicians Joel Tucker, guitar, and Kenny Phelps, drums, to the extent of laying down several tracks with them at a Bloomington studio. Those are awaiting companion tracks depending on Snyder's ability to raise money for Prime Vintage's recording debut.  A definite part of those plans will be to include the band's fourth member, tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught.

I caught the first set about a half-hour in and stayed through the break so I could hear all of the second. This group, three of whose members are well-known to Indianapolis jazz fans. has a firm basis from the bona fides that Phelps, Faught, and Tucker bring to it, and the leader is sure to become  better-known hereabouts, particularly if Prime Vintage thrives.

He is a winning writer, with a tribute to his two young sons, "Those Two," providing a fine ballad vehicle in the first set. The group relaxed into it, and kept it tender throughout their solos, right through a Faught cadenza at the  end.  And he seems to be skilled at bringing to light obscure songs, such as the melody Barry Manilow provided to previously unset lyrics by Johnny Mercer: "When October Goes" was a nice discovery, and Faught poured a lot of soul into her solo on it; Tucker was featured in a fittingly reflective ending.

There were of course plenty of uptempo and midtempo  grooves, in which the quartet shone. Tucker seemed to inject a little Coryell juice into his solo on "Poppin'," and Snyder picked up on the title's implications with lots of stinging staccato playing. The leader was especially flamboyant in "Somewhere in the Night," a Lalo Schifrin tune, getting all around the theme, illuminating it from various directions.

And after a rough start, John Patton's "The Yodel" fully displayed this quartet's capabilities. Some strong shredding in Tucker's solo set the stage for one of Phelps' protean, well-directed outbursts. The  passion and control exhibited by this quartet Tuesday raises the hope to hear more of Prime Vintage before too long.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

ICO reaps continued rewards from connection with James Aikman as composer in residence

The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Matthew Kraemer, continues to make a
James Aikman, composer of a Viola Concerto for Csaba Erdelyi
more richly outlined self-portrait in its programming.

In part, this has been accomplished through the association of several years' standing with Indianapolis native James Aikman as composer in residence. What this has most recently yielded is a Viola Concerto, whose premiere performance was given Saturday night by the orchestra and its  principal violist Csaba Erdelyi, for whom it was written.

The principle of contrast or differentiation between one or more instrumentalists and an ensemble is basic to the concerto. That principle makes it older than the symphony, which anchors the repertoire up to today for the type of musical organization known as the symphony orchestra. And the principle is roomy enough to go in the direction of competition or toward partnership. Seen the latter way, it's more evident that each partner is completing something absent in the other rather than trying to establish dominance.

That's the ruling tendency in Aikman's new work, which enjoyed a zestful, highly colored first performance under Kraemer's baton. The premiere was nestled between a couple of 20th-century European suites well-suited to being taken up by chamber orchestras.  All around, then, this concert enhanced the profile of the ICO and gave further luster to its unique place in Indianapolis' musical life.

The composer has provided a thorough guide to the new piece, including details that might well escape notice on first hearing. Drawing back from the creator's magnifying glass somewhat, especially in his analysis of the first movement, I heard a winning approach to embedding the solo instrument in the texture, including unconventional splashes of percussion, cultivation of an air of mystery, and eventually complex interchanges with the full ensemble. Consciously or not, Aikman chose a path opposite to the most famous modern viola concerto, Bela Bartok's, for which Erdelyi has completed a version to vie with Tibor Serly's.

Aikman presents the viola as an interlocutor in an almost concerto-for-orchestra context. It does not assert itself from the start in the Bartok manner; on the other hand, it doesn't fade into the woodwork, either. Erdelyi's performance was measured, sturdy, and patrician in manner, with just enough flair to bring out Aikman's interest in showcasing the viola under various lights. In "Serenade," the second movement, I liked the variety of color and forcefulness given to the steady pulse in the accompaniment; Erdelyi's lyrical side was given prominence against a background of stately lament.

Csaba Erdelyi, ICO principal viola, presented the concerto's premiere.
The finale swept into a propulsive, uplifting atmosphere, with new kinds of exchange between viola and ensemble. There were dramatic pauses and an effective settling down near the end. The movement carried the label "Danse," and the reason for the French version of "dance" eludes me. I'm reminded of what Harold Schonberg, the greatest of New York Times music critics, once wrote when reviewing George Crumb's "Variazioni": "Kind of a swanky title — why not 'Variations'?"

Friday's concert opened with a fey dance suite, Le Festin de l'Araignee (The Spider's Feast), by Albert Roussel. With its evocation of insects at a deadly arachnid chowdown, the music is lightly touched by wit and a faux-visual perspective. It featured several finely rendered solos, notably by  principal flutist Gabriel Fridkis.

The orchestra's solo chops were further tested in the lengthier suite that made up the second half, Richard Strauss' "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." The German composer had more stylistic games to play in addition to complementing the Moliere play of the same title. He dabbles in expertly saluting the 17th-century tyrant of French court music, Jean-Baptiste Lully, a contemporary of the playwright's. The knock on German humor is that it's a thin book, but really it's just a bit more heavy-handed. The capacity for amusement still comes through when Strauss, for example, is in a playful mood applying his protean skills to baroque dance forms.

The ICO performance was notable for sprightly solos by oboist Leonid Sirotkin and concertmaster Tarn Travers. The expressive weight of "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" falls upon the finale, the feast itself — with its rollicking course of lamb recalling the bleating sheep of "Don Quixote" and a couple of cheeky quotes from Verdi's "La donna e mobile." The drollery was neatly brought off; balances were perfectly enhanced by the Schrott's warm acoustics. The ICO sounds more and more at home there; this is no accidental accomplishment, as both the programming and its execution Saturday made clear.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

In UIndy concert of "firsts," Indianapolis Quartet continues to assert its superiority in local chamber music

IQ: Zachary De Pue, Joana Genova, Austin Huntington, and Michael Strauss
The soft-spoken title of the Indianapolis Quartet's concert Monday night — "Firsts" — refers to the first (and in one case the only) example of three composers' contributions to the string-quartet genre.

Also, the group is at the end of its first season with the current personnel: Zachary De Pue and Joana Genova, violins; Michael Isaac Strauss, viola; Austin Huntington, cello. The musicians gave plenty of evidence they have coalesced as an artistic unit in a program of works by Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Debussy.

To take up the hardest piece first: Claude Debussy's sole contribution to the string-quartet repertoire is a masterpiece that has his unique signature all over it; it occupied the second half of the performance in the DeHaan Fine Arts Center at the University of Indianapolis, the quartet's home. Cohesive though the Debussy quartet is, it takes up and satisfies novel notions about form. Development becomes more a matter of turning the prism variously so that colors and rhythms undergo energizing shifts of emphasis. These musicians displayed the kind of insights needed.

A quartet of individually expert players needs extraordinary rapport in the Debussy:  In the first movement, the variety of this group's approach to the theme was assured in both texture and color. And there was a fine sense of drama imparted to the material. The second movement was keyed to the singing tone of Strauss' viola, playing against a sparkling pizzicato backdrop.

The third movement gave the most striking indication of the Indianapolis Quartet's interpretive skill.
The Indianapolis Quartet in action on the stage of Ruth Lilly Performance Hall.
It's all too easy to make this music a kind of stroll through a parfumerie; this performance favored what could be called a rhetorical sweetness rather than the decorative kind. It was well put together; it stressed how much this movement has to say and how cogently it says it. The finale set a seal upon this intelligent approach.

Of the three works on the program, Shostakovich's first quartet sounds the most like a composer's initiation into writing for two violins, viola, and cello. Not that there's anything inexpert about it; the Russian had made his mark at 19 with his first symphony. He was a little late getting around to the string quartet a dozen years later. His op. 49 in C major is straightforward in expression and form, not touched by the sardonic humor under which he sometimes signaled his difficulties with the Soviet regime.

The performance was above-board in every respect, nicely paced especially in the folkish, marchlike progress of the second movement. The trouble-free atmosphere characteristic of the whole was reinforced by the finale, as the quartet unstintingly put across the piece's high spirits.

Beethoven's op. 18, no. 1 in F major got the concert under way. Accents and pauses were well-coordinated in the opening Allegro. The new foursome's gift for dynamic contrast was on full display. At the louder end of the spectrum, no fraying of the sound popped into view; on the quiet side, the hush was unanimously evident when called for. The trenchant brio the quartet gave to the finale represented the assertive young composer with distinction.

If the Indianapolis Quartet is able to secure frequent opportunities to play together, it is likely to flourish for as long as it can retain the same personnel,  getting ever more used to one another as they explore the vast string-quartet repertoire.

Chris Potter brings his tenor sax, chock full of stamina and ideas, to the Jazz Kitchen

Chris Potter has been among the top tenor saxophonists for two decades.
In the second set of a one-night stand at the Jazz Kitchen, Chris Potter and his quartet got matters off to a roaring start with "Bemsha Steps," a clever mash-up of Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing" and John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

Though the repertoire of Potter originals is huge, that overture indicated how original Potter can be when he wrestles with the tradition and updates it with capable 2018 flair. With him on the bandstand were compatible sidemen Adam Rogers, guitar; Fima Ephron, bass, and Dan Weiss, drums.

The quartet effectively unloaded a half-dozen tunes upon a receptive full house. When the composer in Potter rares back and delivers, the performer in him (and in his sidemen) rises to the occasion. His shrugging title to "Pop Tune No. 1" might suggest something quite sketchy, but that proved not to be the case. With triplets underlying the melodic flow, the piece went from mainstream pop to a country feel in Rogers' solo. After a flamboyant Potter cadenza, the performance moved into a rocking rhythm. In sum, a broad expanse of pop sensibility was heartily embraced.

When Potter dips into other idioms, the result still thrusts forward his personal artistry. With electronic help, he set down some patterns on clarinet that served as a backdrop when he switched to tenor. That was on "Good Hope," a reference to the South African headland and thus a signal that an Afro-pop vibe was in the offing. The good-natured churning prevailed throughout, giving a rare solo from Ephron room to dance. The piece's long diminuendo near the end sailed smoothly around the Cape.

Blowing away the distractions of social media by addressing them abstractly, Potter's "Tweet" brought the set to its announced conclusion. It's an abstract, restless piece, fighting against disorder just the way most of us do when we follow Twitter. It was an ideal vehicle for a drum solo, in which Weiss masterfully contrasted cymbals with bass drum.

The tenor saxophonist remains astonishing after many years among the top ranks of his instrument. He pours his huge tone through the horn with seemingly effortless elan. His wealth of ideas never seems to fail him. There's no part of a piece's prevailing mode or chord structure that he leaves unexplored. His technique is so refined that he can appear to blend something close to the "slap-tonguing" of old to the "sheets of sound" Coltrane was acclaimed for when that master became a star at a moment's notice. It can't be easy to get such flow and detachment simultaneously and profusely.

There were only two episodes of the set that puzzled me.  He introduced a bracing version of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" with a peculiar cadenza on flute. I couldn't discern what it contributed to the quartet's romp through the song. Rogers' solo was particularly wry, well-founded, and reflective.

The second puzzler came at the end of the encore, "I Fall in Love Too Easily," for which standard the quartet deftly scaled back the intensity. It was a fine exposition of Potter's harmonic and melodic freedom, well-supported by his bandmates. But in the coda the saxophonist seemed to wander into another key, and I sensed that Rogers wasn't sure whether the boss was going "outside" for a bit or actually changing tonal centers. Maybe it was meant as an analogue to the perils of falling in love too easily; it sure felt like it.

I'm quite ready to give Potter the benefit of the doubt, however. From the security and bravura he exhibited throughout the generous set, it was pretty clear that — like Nikki Haley — he doesn't get confused. And he's likely less arrogant about that than the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Les Miz ripoff for a good cause: To those who serve at Trump's pleasure, bring your phone wherever you go!

Ignore your Twitter feed at your peril; it may be the best way to know (although not before the world) that you've been fired.