Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Covid-19: Will it miss you or kiss you?

COVID-19: Will it miss you? Putting the question to anti-maskers, social-distance scoffers.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Discenchanted Evening: Trump's collapsible rally in Tulsa remembered in song

Here’s my cut-rate Emile De Becque and flea-market Ezio Pinza, pressed into the service of memorializing the President’s Disenchanted Evening in Tulsa.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Monday, June 22, 2020

Omer Avital and Qantar bring Israeli sensibilities to the American street

Avital at work and play
From the opening track of "New York Paradox"(Zamzama Records) to the finale, bassist Omer Avital and Qantar look backward and from an oblique angle at some of the more vigorous jazz recorded circa 1960. My references are to "Shavazi," a kind of Israeli "Better Git It in Your Soul," and the determined if dour "Bushwick After Dark," which unfolds with the laid-back suavity of "Killer Joe."

Backward glances at the way jazz was recorded by Atlantic and Blue Note  (my song references are to Charles Mingus and the Farmer-Golson Jazztet) are to me not regrettable in 2020 if the personality behind the legacy-boosting is fresh. Talk about "advancing the music" should never obscure the value of decanting new wine into clean old bottles.

And so it seems to be the revived niche the 49-year-old Israeli-American bassist and his quintet called Qantar can idiomatically occupy. Based in Brooklyn, with a performance and recording outlet at Wilson Live in their neighborhood, Amital and his mates are a lesson in canny assimilation, projecting the richness of Israel's jazz orientation while reflecting the absorption of the American mainstream.

In addition to the assertive harmonic underpinning and deep flashes of brilliance from the leader's bass, Qantar is characterized by a two-saxophone front line: Asaf Yuria is heard on alto and tenor, while Alexander Levin is a tenor specialist.  The group is completed by pianist Eden Ladin and drummer Ofri Nehemya.

Amital wrote everything on "New York Paradox," from "Shabazi," the opening track that distantly evokes the Mingus hard-charger mentioned above, through the concluding piece, which is distinguished by a flamboyant yet elegant bass solo. Otherwise, the title track is as good a place as any to elucidate what Qantar is all about.

The paradox of New York City, which makes everything possible and many aspects of daily life next to impossible, is reflected in the way frequent trilling and a shuddering ensemble capture the metropolitan anxiety. There's a picturesqueness to the tunes that avoids the literal. So after you've noticed that the characteristic phrasing of "Just Like the River Flows" matches the words of the title, you're free to let your mind drift downstream along with the band.

I'm not sure of the reason for the French title of "C'est Clair," but it sounds as if, with lyrics, it could have been a Charles Aznavour ballad. And "Today's Blues" brings back the dueling-tenor format from days of hard-bop yore. To double down on the tune's assertiveness, Amital's bass line behind  Eden Ladin's piano solo is more than substantial, and a Nehemya drum solo leaves no doubt that yesterday's blues have infused Qantar's up-to-date version. When it comes to digging into musical roots, this band shows that transplanting what they come up with across a couple of big ponds works splendidly and can flourish.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Buddy movies in sound: Stryker eases into Mintzer arrangements with WDR Big Band

Dave Stryker and Bob Mintzer are seasoned bandstand colleagues.
Among the well-established indications that jazz has long been reliably exported and given a native hue of resolution abroad is the WDR Big Band.

WDR stands for "Westdeutsche Rundfunk" (West German Radio) and the last syllable of the full name suggests to Americans that such an ensemble can take care of business. ("Funk" is a highly charged word, as Beethoven fans know from the line "Freude, schöne Götterfunken" in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. "Joy, spark of the gods," indeed!)

The band brings it off expertly in "Blue Soul" (Strikezone Records) which has its shared of funkiness as it showcases guitarist Dave Stryker, guesting with the band at the invitation of director and tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer.  Mintzer's arrangements are skillfully negotiated, and the master of the revels picks up his horn now and then, too, while yielding most of the solo space to Stryker and, variously, to the band members.

True to Stryker's recent series of "Eight Track" releases spotlighting his distinctive interpretations of pop material, "Blue Soul" pays a lot of attention to others' hits (versions commonly known as "covers," a term that has little value in jazz, as much of what a jazzman plays covers songs introduced by, or most associated with, other musicians).

The set begins smartly with Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man," with Stryker's solo clearly profiled and the band's presence significant but never obtrusive. That's pretty much the procedure throughout the set. The WDR ensemble gets plenty to do, but the writing isn't showy or assertive. Mintzer knows he's writing for a band that can play anything and doesn't need to be ostentatious.

A treat for Indianapolis jazz fans is the inclusion of Billy Test on piano and organ, especially prominent on the latter instrument in "Trouble Man," "What's Going On," and Stryker's "Blues Strut." Test was a finalist in the 2018-19 American Pianists Association's competition, and made a strong impression, as he does here.

Stryker's tone normally has a matte finish, which lends a subtle color palette to Prince's "When Doves Cry."  He can bring a glow to it for expressive purposes, suiting the atmosphere of 'Wichita Lineman." That number also features one of the best solos by a WDR member, trombonist Andy Hunter, who glides among registers with surprisingly relaxed virtuosity. Flavorful solo turns by alto saxophonists Karolina Strassmayer and Johann Hörlen contribute much to "What's Going On" and "When Doves Cry," respectively.

Tempo choices always seem fitting, and the support from the drum chair by Hans Dekker makes such a clean-featured swinger as "Shadowboxing" especially exciting. His cagey fills between phrases evolve into a deft solo. "Stan's Shuffle," a closer that pairs Stryker and Mintzer in the spotlight, poises the saxophonist's lanky, virile style, slightly rough-edged, against the sparkling side of the guitarist's sound. The rapport is solid, and the bar-walking pace is just what's called for to round out an attractive release.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

On shouting for peace first: suggestions for a social-justice road map in King's 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail'

“No justice!” they shouted. “No peace!”

So ran a line in a Washington Post account of the protest demonstration in the nation’s capital at the beginning of the month. It was an odd recasting of the slogan that is usually printed as “No justice, no peace,” sometimes with one exclamation point at the end.

Mug shots of Dr. King from the jailing that led to his famous letter to white pastors.
The Post version may have inadvertently evoked the kind of stalemate that America’s stubborn racial struggles have reached. If you separate the phrases by more than a comma, as the Post did, you place them as neighboring pillars with no implied link between them.

Maybe that’s what we have now: no justice in one silo, no peace in the other. With next to none of either quality, and no interaction between them, we’re stuck.

Of course, the slogan “No justice, no peace” as normally chanted and felt implies causality: If the protests don’t establish justice, then there will be no peace. Consequence is necessarily implied, as in the legendary sign warning customers in Chinese laundries: “No ticket, no laundry.” A condition for getting a desired result is laid down; if the condition is not met, you go home without the shirts you had delivered to be cleaned and pressed.

I want to propose that America could do with a period of reversing the chant, like this: “No peace, no justice.” That’s because it may be necessary for some kind of authentic social peace to be in place before we even know collectively what justice might mean as a way out of our current dilemma.

Thus, any sign of peace in the struggle – as long as it is not the kind that solidifies an oppressive status quo – should be celebrated. Without acceptable peace conditions, the hard work of establishing justice is distorted and perhaps lost in the haze of conflict.  We now seem to be too distant from consensus on peace to negotiate steps toward realizing justice.  Thus, there’s a tangle of proposed fixes to policing that vary from structural reforms through prohibition of certain techniques (no-knock entry, choke holds, etc.) to “defund the police,” a phrase that has been relentlessly parsed since it entered common parlance just a few weeks ago. 

Where along this spectrum is justice? We can’t know. Nor can we know, in order to establish justice,  how much renaming of military bases and other institutions is necessary, how many statues supporting discarded values should be torn down, or how many black and brown faces need to appear in group portraits of boards of directors. And that’s because we are purporting to know, from a variety of perspectives, what justice is when we have no common basis for defining and enacting peace.

Some activists have used Martin Luther King Jr.’s  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a foundational text for the current slogan. I believe his remarkable essay better supports my revision of it.  Yet I readily acknowledge that he saw in April 1963 considerable overlap of the two concepts, and he privileged the inclusion of justice within a peaceful starting point that would allow movement away from the conservative talisman of “order” in the Jim Crow South.

In a long plea for the understanding and support of white pastors in Birmingham who had paid for the New York Times ad condemning civil-rights activities led by King in the Alabama city as “unwise and untimely,” the imprisoned activist sets the justification of the sustained protest in the broadest possible context, always with nonviolence and a search for common ground at its core.

For example, right after stating that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” which may seem to set down justice as a necessary condition for peace, King says: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I submit that enunciating such a value is central to King’s ministry and his activism.  The common destiny provides the foundation for a peace achieved only with the acknowledgment of that mutuality. It is what he calls “a positive peace,” from which “the myth of time” is rejected. This striking phrase alludes to the Southern moderate’s insistence that justice can only emerge over time. As King pungently says, too often this means that the counsel of “Wait!” amounts to “Never!”

Through example as well as sustained tension, King lays out four basic steps in any nonviolent campaign: “1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive. 2) Negotiation. 3) Self-purification and 4) Direct action.”

Three out of the four steps are manifestly peaceful. The fourth one, prepared for by adherence to the first three, can be seen as the most threatening to the power structure, but it at least makes the needs of justice explicit. Before direct action is undertaken, the vision has been honed, and the means to the desired end has been subjected to constant discipline. “Over the last few years,” King says in his peroration, “I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

This clarion call for peace as a default position in the agitation for true equality is not as popular to quote today as “…freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” but the latter quotation doesn’t really depart from King’s full description and justification of the Birmingham campaign in his jail letter. The demand proceeds from the indelible notion of a positive peace, propounded through negotiation and steady communication of a positive message.

As a rallying cry, “No peace, no justice” is unlikely to galvanize well-meaning crowds in the streets.  But as a condition for the progress we so desperately need, “No peace, no justice” ought to be the thought that fortifies progressives against the extremes that promote rickety, ill-conceived, conflicted and sometimes dangerous notions of jerrybuilt justice. The edifice of true justice requires the scaffolding of peace.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Young Canadian composer Daniel Hersog shows individuality in big-band debut

Now in his mid-30s, Daniel Hersog seems to have drawn much from his education at Boston's New England Conservatory to take back to his hometown,Vancouver, B.C. Now the trumpeter-composer has built his first big-band CD, "Night Devoid of Stars" (Cellar Music), around the participation of two of the men he got to know there: tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger (classmate) and pianist Frank Carlberg (teacher). 

His imagination is highly charged enough not only to be worthy of his guests, but also to have inspired the 14 other participants in this set of seven tunes, all of them originals except for "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," the Otto Harbach-Jerome Kern evergreen from 1933.

On that tune, Carlberg particularly displays the wry sensibility he can bring to melody and harmony. The familiar tune is refracted from a bent perspective at first in a solo introduction, but it becomes clear from the way the ensemble is used after it enters that Carlberg is reconfirming the arranger's approach. The way the band is nestled in behind the piano shows a surprising maturity, as if Hersog has been writing this sort of thing for years..

Trumpet is his ax, but he lays it aside in "Night Devoid of Stars." 
Apt settings for soloists seem to be a mainstay of Hersog's originals as well. The picturesque "Cloud Break," which opens the CD, presents a well-lit ensemble to shed extra light upon trumpeter Brad Turner's soaring solo. Later when the clouds suggested by the title darken, the sound proves to be just what Preminger's tenor sax needs, its glowering features underlined by Carlberg's insistent work in the background.

Carlberg also sets the mood by channeling gospel piano style in "Motion," with the funky sound deftly brought back from the edge of  cliche by the pastel tints in Hersog's arrangement, with the band smoothly sustaining the low volume level in a way that evokes the bandleader's admiration for Gil Evans. A wide-ranging Preminger solo crowns the performance.

The tenorman's guest appearance seems especially appropriate  in "Makeshift Memorial," in which his wide-ranging improvised melodies always hang smoothly together.  Here and in "Night Devoid of Stars," Hersog gives space for his explicitly stated political worries, though he has the good sense to allow his musical notions to flesh themselves out in a manner that doesn't require a particular interpretation. The title tune opens with an air of mystery, and the way it moves toward a free-jazz episode sounds unforced and, from Carlberg, casts a firm view toward another side of his artistry— the full-canvas dissonant sonority of Cecil Taylor.
An indication that Hersog's music isn't dominated by dour thoughts comes in 'Indelible," where he provides a setting for clarinet soloist Chris Startup that indicates a puckish sense of humor from the one to the many and back again.

Throughout, the band is a nimble communicator of Hersog's diverse ideas, and, if not for some trumpet figures that sound rather hackneyed near the end of "Song for Henrique," a tribute to a Brazilian musician, the listener's impression that a fresh voice in big-band writing has introduced himself will be sustained.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Jory Vinikour's Couperin disc "L'Unique": Change and stability in landmark solo harpsichord music

Cedille Records has been vital in giving wider exposure to Chicago musicians, and the international stature of Jory Vinikour has been enhanced by his brief discography on the label. Modern harpsichord concertos were the focus in a crystalline presentation last year, and that succeeded an illuminating  account of J.S, Bach's violin-harpsichord sonatas two years ago with Rachel Barton Pine.
Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour (photo: Hermann Rosso)

With concentration on Francois Couperin on a new release, Vinikour gets to the heart of his substantial training in French clavecin music. He presents three of the books (ordres) by which the French baroque master cemented his reputation as both teacher and canonical exemplar of how the repertoire should be performed.

David Fuller concludes his Grove's Dictionary essay on Couperin "le Grand" with these words: "If elsewhere he may at times have matched the wit, the urbanity, the somber passion, the easy charm, the melancholy or the high spirits of his harpsichord music, in no other medium did he combine those qualities to so remarkable a degree."

The listener to "L'Unique," the title given to Vinikour's presentation of the sixth, seventh, and eighth books, will consistently note how vividly these qualities are brought forward.

The rhythmic acuity, with crisply turned ornaments being essential to the expression, is remarkable. The timing is varied to suit the expressive import of the varied phrases; the daunting thicket of notes on the page takes on a translucent clarity in Vinikour's interpretations.

The sound of the harpsichord (Tony Chinnery, 2012) is bright and flexible in tone color. The lower register occupies its share of the spectrum creditably, notably in the piece everyone knows best, "Les Baricades Mysterieuses," with its intriguing air of artfully blocked striving toward the treble. The miking seems close but never stifling in a recording made a year ago at the University of Chicago.

In the seventh book, a generalized group of character pieces titled "Les Petits Ages," a kind of harpsichord equivalent of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man (though Couperin contents himself with four), displays insight into the composer's probing, sensitive wit. The innocence and wide-open appetite for experience of the newborn passes into the restlessness of early childhood. Sonorities appropriate to Couperin's rendering of those early stages of life give way to the bumptious glare of adolescence, brilliantly outlined in Vinikour's playing. "Les Petits Ages" is crowned by the mellowness of "Les Delices" (the delights).

Less abstract portraiture is also engaging: In the sixth book, "Les Bergeries" offers a glimpse of pastoral life decorated by twittering birds, and the two pieces  that conclude the set dip into the world of people and insects: "La Commere" clatters just enough to portray the lively tediousness of gossip, and "Le Moucheron" darts and dips, with trills buzzing, in deft imitation of the fly in its title.

The focus on dance forms in the eighth book, doggedly rooted in B minor, exemplifies the formal acumen also evident in Couperin's chamber music. The Passacaille that concludes the ordre, and brings this disc to a glorious conclusion, exemplifies Couperin's ability to put his signature on the technical and expressive resources of the harpsichord when the aim was to make a received form personal, just as his younger contemporary J.S. Bach did with such dance forms in his suites.

Along the way, as in the same book's "Sarabande: "L'Unique" that gives the disc its title, Couperin  creates an attractive structure that's like a palace with an integrated decor scheme that magnifies the whole. Vinikour is a docent of incomparable insight, commitment, and thorough preparation.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Summertime Blues, a 2020 version

Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start of summer, but oh! what mixed messages this year as the USA approaches a...

Posted by Jay Harvey on Monday, May 25, 2020

Saturday, May 16, 2020

'Blended Lineage': David Bixler's mixed results in suite on theme of tribes

Current political and social commentary tends to tsk-tsk at "tribalism," suggesting a regression from civilized norms.  Pushing back against such connotations, alto saxophonist David Bixler leads a five-man group he calls the Bixtet, supplemented by a string quartet, in a commissioned work on the theme of tribes.

"Blended Lineage" (Red Piano Records) is a 34-minute suite in which the composer's forces are well-
Composer-saxophonist David Bixler
distributed, but sometimes seem to be searching for musical substance. Bixler has said he deliberately accentuated the positive (to use Johnny Mercer's phrase) in writing the work. The ferocity and insularity of tribal identity clearly held little appeal to him.

Ensemble virtues fade a bit into the background in the finale,"My Soul Swoons Softly," a phrase borrowed somewhat disconcertingly from James Joyce's eulogistic short story "The Dead." Bixler makes this summing-up an alto-sax showcase. That cuts against the ensemble focus of the rest of "Blended Lineage," but it's meant to emphasize the personal import of the theme.

Even when the string quartet sits out, in "Motherland," the suite usually maintains a nifty balance of instruments. Thus, in "My Soul Swoons Softly," the way the strings seem to be coming in from a distance may well be an artistic decision rather than an engineering flaw. I guess it's designed to represent the soul's soft swooning, a risky area for music to settle into, but a plausible foray here.

Here's a contrast: In the suite's opening section, "Origins," the string quartet partners steadily with Jon Cowherd's piano after the deliberately careful jelling of the material. Bixler's tone is reflective, soft-edged, and verges on the lugubrious.

The positive message becomes more explicit in "Motherland," a tribute to Bixler's Wisconsin heritage. There's energy in the theme that the alto sax shares with trumpeter Mike Rodriguez. The open-road feeling evokes for me memories of motoring along the rolling farm country of the state with my wife and her mother (both native Badgers). The tune's ending kicks up agreeably.

My favorite track is "Trenches," where both the theme and its treatment are edgy. The trenches of the  title allude to the life of musicians, often struggling to maintain a foothold, especially since mid-March. I like the way the anxiety of that lifestyle is both tamed and projected through the music. The Rodriguez solo in particular displays the mood. The strings seem more than window dressing, and there's some fine interplay near the end in patterns placed on top of Fabio Rojas' drums.

Luke Sellick completes the Bixtet personnel on bass. The string quartet comprises Judith Ingolfsson, gold medalist in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, violinist Heather Martin Bixler, violist Josh Kail, and cellist Rubin Kodheli.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Putting a long-form feeling into compact new works: Sebastien Ammann's 'Resilience'

Sebastien Ammann shows off his keyboard chops chiefly in the title tune of his new CD. But
it's his composer-bandleader acuity that moves his band, Color Wheel, into applying its own signature to "Resilience"  (Skirl Records) and making the band memorable.

Sebastien Ammann contemplates form and space.
The Swiss keyboardist wrote seven of the nine pieces on the recording. Each piece establishes itself; it sets down on a firm footing right away. No wonder he's attracted to the direct quirkiness of Carla Bley's "King Korn Revisited,"  the more notable of the two borrowings.

I found the pensive, diffuse work called "The Traveller" a bit inclined to woolgathering, but the personality behind it was clear. This band, often making a point of individualism, still seems well matched internally. Besides Ammann, they are Michael Attias, alto saxophone; Samuel Blaser, trombone; Noah Garabedian, bass, and Nathan Ellman-Bell drums.

Blaser has a liquescent tone and an immense reach of range and expression. His solo on "Untangled" is masterly, especially in the way it leads into the ensemble's re-entry. I like the way he seems to sum up everything about "The Traveller," too, giving coherence to the piece's peregrinations.

"Afterthought" allows lots of room for Attias' sometimes assertive, sometimes inquisitive alto sax, and Ammann's eccentric but generally apt accompaniment patterning comes off very well here.

"Pedestrian Space" is something we all need in these social-distancing times. The nervous energy of the percussion figures finds Attias and Blaser's adroitness giving an amusing urban profile to what comes close to barnyard noises we haven't heard since the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. This is whimsy taken to an offhand application of virtuosity. The whole CD manages to present an appealing blend of sophistication and naivete.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Bob Dylan said a mouthful in 'Subterraean Homesick Blues"; here's a mouthful of Covid-19 stuff: 'Subterranean Homeland Blues'

Surterranean Homeland Blues

Tony’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
Donald’s tweets won’t relent
Bragging about the government
Doctor in a white coat
License out, laid off
Said he’s got a bad cough
All his chips are played off

Look out for Covid
You gotta stay hid
No one knows when
You can come out again
Keep at least six feet away
Don’t look for a new friend
Reopen protester among armed men
Wants 11 explanations, you only got ten.

Pence comes blank-faced
Always close to Trump placed
Giving the boss praise
Presidential hopes raised
Trump says that many say
Must resume by end of May
Keep America great, hey!

But look out, kid
Don’t matter what you did
Try to blame the Fake News
Why lead? Just refuse
Can’t be a shipping clerk
Got duties?  Try to shirk
Stand still, don’t twerk
Stay aloof, that’ll work.
You don’t need the media
To know which way the wind blows.

Ah, get sick, get well
Little tracing, hard to tell
What policy will sell.
Lie hard, truth barred
Many ventilators fail
Governors turn pale
Time to bail, let ‘em wail
Look out for Covid, it wants to get rid
Of insiders, outsiders, health-care providers
Don’t worry ‘bout the gene pool
Many more folks to fool
Keep the same leaders
In virtual theaters.

Ah, get born, keep warm
Is that a fever or romance
Learn to dance, get fixed in politics
All the messages are mixed
Please Trump, please Pence, they’re adrift
Can’t heal, try to shift
Three years in the White House
Feeling slighted, he’s miffed
Look out till we’re rid of the evil Covid
Better jump down a manhole
Of isolation lighting candles
Chill in pajamas, wear old sandals
Can’t keep up with all the scandals
Public health don’t work
Cause the vandals took the handles

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Making a political point through abstract music: What to make of 'Hypocrisy Democracy'?

Dave Glasser's privileging of political unease, a feeling shared by many nowadays, struggles for musical expression in "Hypocrisy Democracy" (Here Tiz Music).

The alto saxophonist builds on the jingle-jangle of his unusual title to set down a critique of the system that both sustains and undermines us. It's not irrelevant that he's the son of Ira Glasser, former  executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. That connection also boosted his musical interests insofar as, through the jazz commentator and Bill of Rights defender Nat Hentoff,  he met and studied with the late Lee Konitz, a key figure in jazz alto sax independent of the pervasive Charlie Parker influence.

The music carries no text, so associations with the bandleader's political perspective must be gleaned from the composition titles, where those apply. When I hear "Justice," for example, I'm not sure how justice applies to the music. My main complaint on musical grounds is that many of the tracks seem evasive, despite the evident rapport of Glasser with pianist Andy Milne,  bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson. I often get the feeling that there's a drive to resist whatever implications a given tune sets up.

This persists despite Glasser's declared interest in rooting his music in the jazz heritage. This is explicit in "Dilemonk," a slow bluesy piece including a definitive Allison solo. The Thelonious Monk misterioso vein is evoked, though I was puzzled by the news release description of the approach as "skulking."

Dave Glasser has an agenda.
Glasser's unforced lyricism and abstract inventiveness clearly draw upon the Konitz influence with his solo in "Coffee, Dogs, and Telelogs." There's a rare use of paraphrase ("Fascinating Rhythm") in, unfortunately, yet another example of a piece seemingly trying to escape itself. Another nod to tradition is "Revolver," whose form derives from the Great American Songbook and whose essence seems to be Rodgers and Hart's "Lover."

A pleasant surprise is the inclusion of the Disney favorite "It's a Small World," for which Glasser turns to flute. The interpretation is rooted in Glasser's memory of struggle to be musical as a little boy (the program note in this case is illuminating) and coming out on top. The performance is gratifyingly centered, and not just because it's based on a quite familiar tune. I also liked the direct tribute to his mentor, "Glee for Lee," harmonically untethered but not irresolute,  in the best Konitz tradition.

A prominent statement from Glasser on the jacket is worth an eye-roll: "My hope is this recording will stimulate thought and converse towards a more peaceful, sustainable existence." Make of that what you will, but Glasser's music, though conflicted, is not without charm, with a lot of credit going to his capable bandmates.

I was even delighted by Glasser's company name (Here Tiz), reminding me of a less complicated jazzman of long ago, Fats Waller. Introducing "Moppin' and Boppin'," the inimitable singer-pianist says: "Want some more of that mess? Well, here 'tis. Zutty [Singleton], take over. Pour it on!" That's the kind of spirit I think most fans want more of from jazz, and less musicianly ax-grinding.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Alto saxophonist Michael Thomas explores the 'Event Horizon'

An "event horizon" is the theoretical place beyond which matter in space vanishes into a black hole. It's a clever title for an expansive exercise in small-group acoustic jazz: Stay just this side of the devouring nothingness and you have exciting matter to deal with, intelligible but on the edge.

Musings on the edge: saxophonist Michael Thomas
In the case of Michael Thomas' "Event Horizon," that edge is the Jazz Gallery in New York City, where the two-disc set was recorded last August and produced by the bandleader and Jimmy Katz, the photographer and guiding light behind Giant Steps Arts.

Eight original compositions, three of them prefaced by solo-instrument introductions, make up the program. Thomas displays a light hand compositionally, putting just enough distinctiveness into the themes to allow improvisation to flow freely from there. He enjoys the services of Jason Palmer, a trumpeter who has just issued his own two-disc set on the label, to bolster the front line. Backing them up are the bassist Hans Glawischnig and the drummer Johnathan Blake. Blake's project for Giant Step Arts, titled "Trion," was my introduction to Katz's worthy venture last year.

Thomas' compositions are gentle hooks for extensive improvisations, principally from the bandleader and Palmer. Glawischnig provides a reliable harmonic foundation, animated by rhythmic verve; he duos fruitfully with the bandleader in "Drift," then takes a meditative solo that stays consistently within the pulse.

Especially vital is the remarkable percussion energy and wisdom of Blake. His partnership with Thomas in several places brings out the keenness of the saxophonist's imagination. Considered as a duo, they sometimes drive each other to swing like mad, starting with the program-opener, "Distance."

Of the entire program, I found only "Chant" somewhat tedious, though Thomas' nearly four-minute solo intro gave me fair warning. It struck me as very fluid practice material, glibly tossed off, and when "Chant" follows, the saxophonist maintains an etude-like focus. Despite the length that Thomas permits himself and Palmer, so that variety can emerge, this was the only track where I feared mere note-spinning was about to take over.

"Dr. Teeth," the closest the band gets to a down-home feeling, is a witty, oblique reference to the late Dr. John and the New Orleans "second-line" vibe. Everyone blazes away, yet the internal rapport of the group never falters. The Thomas-Palmer partnership is perhaps at its must lustrous here, but frankly there are very few lapses from the high level the band achieves throughout more than 90 minutes of music. There's a lot of poise to tingle the listener's nerves at this event horizon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Happy 250th birthday, darn it all! Gilmore Festival presents Jonathan Biss livestreamed in three Beethoven sonatas

Among the cultural trashing that the current Covid-19 pandemic has added to its overall toll is the
scanting of celebrations of Beethoven's 250th birthday.

Jonathan Biss comes to Beethoven with a high degree of preparation and insight.
Just yesterday, we learned that the elimination of all Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra activities through September 17 meant that an appropriate observance to end its Classical Series — May and June weekends of the piano concertos and the "Missa Solemnis" -- had to be wiped from the boards. Some observers have said, at least since the 200th death anniversary in 1977, that concert life is already a perpetual Beethoven festival, but there's something poignant in the fact that, on a milestone anniversary,  the greatest example of a composer whose adult life was cast in the deepening shadow of deafness cannot be heard now in concert.

So the opportunity not to rely exclusively on recordings during the global health crisis depends on livestreaming such as what the Gilmore Festival offered Monday afternoon in a home recital of three Beethoven piano sonatas by Jonathan Biss. The eminent concert artist, born in 1980 and hailing from Bloomington, was honored by the Gilmore's Young Artist Award in 2002 and has gone on to  a career marked recently by his recording of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, works represented as well on the international concert stage before the coronavirus shut everything down.

The May 4 recital comprised three challenging works by Beethoven: Op. 7 in E-flat, by reputation the knottiest of the composer's early sonatas; the great cresting of his middle period in op. 90 in E minor, and the first of the troika at the summit of Beethoven piano sonatas, op. 109 in E. In his spoken introduction to the program, the recitalist declared from the piano bench that the final piece almost defeats any attempt to embody its sublimity in words. And Biss is no slouch when it comes to verbal eloquence about music and the life of a musician. (The biography on his web site is a sufficient example, with an opening paragraph I can confidently describe as unique in its genre.)

I will take a cue from the pianist and not offer a full-throated critique of Monday's performance. I could tell a lot about both the instrument and how much at home Biss felt performing on it, but I'm not too confident that my tiny iPhone speaker conveyed a more than adequate impression to me. It was evident that aspects of Biss' artistry were fully intact: the apt weighting of phrases, the rhythmic acuity, the technical panache, and an overall interpretive elan that seems naturally to tap into the music's significance. Biss perhaps would echo a predecessor's championship of the core repertoire, with Beethoven at the center: Artur Schnabel said that he wanted to devote himself to "music better than it can be played."

The second-movement climax of op. 109 was overwhelming, and I'm not referring to how it nearly overwhelmed my iPhone. But before those memorable final moments made their impact, I also enjoyed subtler excellences. To go back to the beginning, there was an eloquence to the rests that separate the recurring phrases in the theme of op. 7's slow movement. The weight and timing Biss lent to them  made the accents in the subsequent dotted figures all the more impressive, creating a unified effect this pianist seems to have no trouble producing.

I want to end by citing the start of the op. 90 finale, which at first disturbed me. The composer specifies "not too fast, with a very vocal style of playing" and the opening is marked "dolce" (sweetly). At first, Biss' presentation seemed too assertive — where is the singing quality, I wondered, where is the sweetness?  As the movement progressed, I felt Biss's performance grew into meeting that requirement, and there was no dearth of vocal style.

The change turned out to be more apparent than real. In retrospect, I happened to think that Beethoven's lyricism is always highly wrought, and a performer's being forthright in stating it doesn't violate what the composer seems to demand when he's in a tender mood. His sketchbooks indicate how hard satisfactory melodies came to him, and his final thoughts about a melody always seem unveiled and a bit bold, even if "dolce" may have been running through his mind.

I thought of a minor but telling example: the way an aria briefly emerges, something that could almost be sung by Florestan, as a secondary theme is briefly elaborated in the "Waldstein" sonata, just before the sunny Rondo finale begins. So, in op. 90,  everything Biss does in bringing out the melodic line in its first appearance seems consistent with his overall interpretation. Beethoven was thus properly saluted here as he was in the whole recital. And as a listener, among a presumably worldwide audience, I came away feeling a guest at this year's unusual Beethoven birthday party, thanks to Jonathan Biss's authentic invitation.

Monday, May 4, 2020

"Goldberg Variations / Variations": Revisiting Dan Tepfer revisiting J.S. Bach

Nine years ago, I reviewed for the Indianapolis Star a recording by the 2007 American Pianists
Dan Tepfer sits atop his study of "Goldberg Variations" and variations of his own,
Cole Porter Fellow Dan Tepfer titled "Goldberg Variations / Variations." The title's  forward slash and  repetition of "Variations" said succinctly what this recording was all about: The original Aria and 30 variations on it that came to be known by a student's name had each of those variations followed by Tepfer's improvised variation on what Bach wrote.

I very much disliked the idea and its execution, though I found a saving grace to the extent that Tepfer's idea (and maybe this actual recording) might be useful as a teaching tool. I wish I could find that 2011 review so I could learn just how wrong I was about the work's public viability. I must have been wrong, because "Goldberg Variations / Variations" was greeted with a chorus of praise. And it took a favored place in Tepfer's repertoire — a 2013 performance of it at the genre-busting showplace Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan brought kudos from Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of the New York Times.

He called Tepfer's performance "riveting and inspired." I can sort of agree with that after listening to Sunday's account by Tepfer of his bold idea, livestreamed from his Brooklyn apartment. The pianist was to have been in Indianapolis yesterday afternoon under APA auspices to play "Goldberg Variations / Variations" at Trinity Episcopal Church, and I would have been there.

Why? Because the set is undeniably riveting. If you love Bach's masterwork, you will be on the edge of your seat waiting to learn, after each variation, just what Tepfer will make of it. That was true today, and so it was when I reacquainted myself with the CD last week after not having slipped it into the player since 2011. As for "inspired," well, sure it is: I can't imagine someone undertaking such a project and carrying it out time and again in a phlegmatic frame of mind.

Another irritation I can't get rid of: LP of "Four Organs"
Finally, for the listener, Tepfer's "Goldberg Variations /Variations" is at least a memorable experience. It's not one of those "meh" records you lightly discard when you're trying to downsize. At the same time, unfortunately, it is one of the most irritating recordings I own, right up there with Steve Reich's "Four Organs" and Kenneth Gaburo's "Lingua II: Maledetto." After today, I'll admit, the irritation receded somewhat. I'll keep all three recordings until they cart me out of here — they're just memorable, and that is a quality that sticks.

In the current case, I was listening Sunday for signs that Tepfer's background as a jazz pianist would bring fresh insights to J.S. Bach. They could be expected to show up in the pianist's improvisations as well as in his traversal of the original, I figured. I have often been struck by the wide gulf between the jazz and classical aesthetics, and the piano is the ideal instrument on which to observe it. I have known too few people who find both genres congenial. Tepfer clearly does, and the way he plays the Goldberg Variations displayed his classical chops and interpretive affinity well.

Once long ago, when using the men's restroom at a break from a Leon Fleisher masterclass at the University of Michigan, I was disheartened to read an anti-jazz scrawl on the wall, scorning the very presence of jazz instruction at a university. OK, so what? Restroom walls are the precursor of social-media trolling. But I suspect one side looking askance at the other may remain a general phenomenon in the public square.

Among music critics, the divide is certainly notable, with a few exceptions such as Mark Stryker,
Harold C. Schonberg, a formidable critic and piano expert, had no use for jazz.
formerly of the Detroit Free Press, and Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune. Harold C. Schonberg, Tommasini's predecessor by a few critical generations at the Times, once told me and other young critics how an editor had assigned him to go to the Newport Jazz Festival, back when the Times lacked a jazz specialist. "I remember listening to a pianist named Erroll Garner; he was trying to play octaves," Schonberg said disdainfully. "Later I learned he was supposed to be a big deal. The next day the Times hired John Wilson ."

Schonberg just didn't like jazz, he said in informal conversation later. Knowing he had special knowledge of the piano, I asked if he was familiar with Art Tatum, thinking of the uncanny evenness of Tatum's runs and their precise insertion into the melodic line. Schonberg shrugged; he hadn't heard of Tatum. Later, in his admiring biography of Vladimir Horowitz, the esteemed critic mentioned the reclusive Russian going to a jazz club occasionally to admire Tatum's art.

Murray Perahia saluted jazz pianists' harmonic sense.
And the eminent master pianist Murray Perahia once gave an interview to an English journalist frankly admitting that jazz pianists are steeped in harmony to a degree many classical musicians are not. Perahia mentioned working with a violinist he chose not to name who wasn't aware what key the music was in during a passage it would have been useful to the partnership for the fiddler to know. A jazzman would have known, Perahia suggested pointedly.

So there is plenty respect to take into account. The Tepfer project has earned it from both sides. Furthermore, APA's  enduring advocacy of both jazz and classical piano is essential to its distinguished brand. Even with his habit of vocalizing, especially in his improvisations, Tepfer seems to salute both branches of his art, represented at their most extreme in vocal self-accompaniment by Keith Jarrett and Glenn Gould.

"I came at that music so tangentially," Tepfer admitted in last Sunday''s livestream chat with 2020 APA competition finalist Dominic Cheli. But, thanks to Tepfer's skill and study ("a project that took me over," he said), the tangent has made a mostly unerring line to the sacred circle of J.S. Bach. That's evident in how well Tepfer handles what Bach wrote. His tempos are varied and well-judged, he has a sure sense of how to apply color, the ornaments and rhythms are crisp, and the interpretations are as spirited as the improvisations that follow. He clearly wants to get pure Bach across, not just use it as a launching pad for Tepfer skyrockets.

Nonetheless, it is hard to sustain admiration for Bach's "argument" — the manner in which he orders his variations and the way they speak to one another — when it is regularly interrupted by spates of Tepfer. And I missed the repeats, though that would have made the recording (and any concert version) twice as long. Not marketable, not even artistically advisable — but still....

There is inevitably some unevenness in the quality of improvisation: What seemed yesterday like an adroitly used "walking bass" in the left hand of the second variation / variation sounds lead-footed and plodding on the recording.

But there are differences, too, that speak favorably to some of the excitement of jazz — "the sound of surprise," in Whitney Balliett's immortal phrase. Tepfer's take on the sixth variation in the recording has a sotto voce intimacy; on Sunday — wow!— his improvisation on the same variation featured tone clusters and more pedal than Tepfer's norm. The color contrast was exciting. I would judge either approach a success in context.

Here's a long coda of Beethovenesque proportions. I want to close by mentioning a few other ways this seasoned jazz pianist makes good use of his background. He catches the martial nature of Variation 9 by becoming more explicitly militaristic in his personal treatment, complete with suggestions of drum rolls. One hears the kind of "spread rhythm" in which pulse expands into  texture, the legacy of Elvin Jones that any number of today's "sons of Elvin" have mastered.

Variation 13  is modified in a manner hinted at propheticlly by Bach to approximate how a jazz pianist approaches ballads from the Great American Songbook. There's some significant foreshadowing of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," which Tepfer explicitly references in the final improvisation, following Bach's quodlibet model of restricting to one main focus the practice of assembling snippets of well-known tunes, here a folk song titled "Kraut und Ruben" (cabbage and turnips). A modern use of this kind of medley enjoys restoration of its lighthearted spirit in P.D.Q. Bach's "Quodlibet for Small Orchestra."

But Tepfer's entire manner as he spins out his take on Variation 13 enters the reflective atmosphere jazz pianists create when they deal with such songs as "I Thought About You" or "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." I enjoyed also Tepfer's suggestion of bop phrasing here and there, an occasional use of "space" a la Miles Davis, and, in addressing the formidable challenge of Bach at his most astonishingly chromatic (Variation 25) a surefootedness about passing through key centers that seems to honor John Coltrane.

On the other hand, there were several improvisations in Sunday's performance where Tepfer seemed to be searching for direction, never quite wresting meaning out of the materials. One of those came near the end, in the Variation 27 Tepferization. But it was succeeded by a strong finish: Clanging bells being evoked in the Variation 28 improvisation, picking up on Bach's 32nd-note figures, and a deft, sprightly turn at boogie-woogie piano in the next improvisation, with Bach's Variation 29 coming in between and seeming a credible shoulder-to-shoulder partner. Finally there was in the Variation 30 improvisation a fitting prelude to the concluding reprise of the Aria. The pianist crafted a poignant, sidelong tribute to the Cole Porter of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," with the first part of the title phrase repeated lingeringly and some inside-the-piano plucks decorating a high-register Tepfer farewell to his improvisations.

So, on balance, I got more out of my return visit to this project. It's still a somewhat irritating listening experience. The whole kit and caboodle may be worth more study by jazz and classical pianists than it can ever be recommended for listeners. The art is there, but the instructional heft of the project seems dominant in promising any longevity for it.

And it's likely I may play my "Goldberg Variations / Variations" CD a time or two more than I will ever put my LPs of "Four Organs" or "Maledetto" on the turntable. Some kinds of irritation are oddly more rewarding than others.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Berlin Philharmonic's 2020 European Concert was one for the memory books

Up betimes, as Samuel Pepys used to say, to catch the European Concert of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Kirill Petrenko is the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic.

This annual event, celebrating 30 years and normally traveling to distinctive European cities for the orchestra to perform, this time had to stay at home, the Philharmonie in Berlin, and make other adjustments under the unique mandates of the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. The 2020 concert was scheduled to have taken place in Tel Aviv, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the collapse of another horror.

This was the first live concert I've "attended" in months, shared with many around the world through technological miracles that are helping us stay in touch in this severely isolating era. It was worth being up at 5 to see and hear small contingents of the BPO play to an empty hall under the direction of Kirill Petrenko.

Pepys, the diarist of Restoration England whose intimate chronicles  of the 1660s include details of the plague in London,  provides premonitions of life under Covid-19. The 2020 European Concert was thoroughly under the spell of the pandemic, yet somehow transcended it. Petrenko nodded to the concertmaster instead of shaking hands. The musicians maintained social distance, placed judiciously along three stage tiers. They had been tested for the virus beforehand, the broadcast host informed us.

The concert's first half didn't require changes beyond spacing. It was a triptych of pieces for strings (plus claves as sole percussion in "Fratres" by Arvo Pärt).  "Fratres," a contemporary hit in several versions, has never sounded so moving as it did here. The deceptively simple representation of a procession of monks gained something uncanny in this set-up.

The program benefited from a bracing piece between "Fratres" and the equally solemn, tunefully restrained "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber. It was Gyorgy Ligeti's "Ramifications," a tightly shifting soundscape in which thematic clarity is jettisoned in favor of textural intensity. It was amazing to hear the effect of such a performance hanging together as it must in spite of a seating arrangement that threatened to overemphasize individual voices.

The familiar Barber was given an admirable interpretation. The great high-register climax was not overstressed, as it is in some performances that flip the piece's memorial import, suggesting the wrong kind of climax. I also liked the prominence of the viola countermelody early in the performance, which reminded me of how well Krzysztof Urbanski brought out that passage with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra several years ago.

A brief intermission offered viewers a well-done film documentary of the European Concert's three-decade history, following which was a greater challenge for the musicians: a chamber-orchestra version of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4. Erwin Stein's arrangement was insightful and true to Mahler's idiom in a modestly scaled work that had to be even more modestly scaled here.

Especially effective was the reading the chamber orchestra gave of the Adagio, said to be Mahler's favorite of all his slow movements. The two keyboard instruments used, piano and small organ, helped flesh out the harmonies, with the organ especially useful in enveloping the solo winds in a sostenuto atmosphere. Episodes in the minor mode were particularly trenchant with these reduced forces.

The finale, a setting of a blissful vision of heavenly feasting, capped the performance in a manner that makes this symphony a favorite of many who normally despise Mahler for lack of restraint and emotional elephantiasis; it was the only Mahler symphony the late Raymond Leppard ever programmed in his long tenure as the ISO's music director.

The solo soprano, Christiane Karg, put across the song that dominates the movement as if well aware of her worldwide audience; the empty hall did not tempt her to mute her expressiveness. I loved the reverent hush with which she sang, and Petrenko lingered on, the line "Saint Martha shall be the cook." Saint Martha, Michael Steinberg explains in his masterly essay on this symphony, "is the patron saint of those engaged in service of the needy."

So the reference to her in Mahler's Fourth took on special meaning, since the concert was dedicated to refugee children suffering particularly from the extra burden of the pandemic as they shelter indefinitely on a Greek island. The musicians had waived their usual compensation to contribute to UNESCO aid for these victims, and the audience was invited to consider similar donations.

The promise in the work's final lines is well-suited to the world's need to sustain hope, both for the resumption of public artistic events and for true solutions to the current plague: "Die englischen Stimmen / Ermuntern die Sinnen! / Dass Alles für Freuden erwacht."  (The angelic voices gladden our senses, so that all awake for joy). May it be so.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

An amazing Chicago chamber-music group, Civitas Ensemble, sheds light on contemporary Chinese composers

With direct heritage embedded within it, the Civitas Ensemble devotes itself to a fascinating program
The Civitas Ensemble comprises three Chicago Symphony members and a Chicago pianist.
of music by living Chinese composers in "Jin Yin," which embraces all the selections in that choice of title, which means "golden tone."

A Cedille Records issue, the project was generated by Civitas founding member Yuan-Qing Yu, Shanghai native and assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her Civitas colleagues are cellist Kenneth Olsen and clarinetist Lawrie Bloom, also CSO members, and pianist Winston Choi.

Three guests join the band for the first composition, "Five Elements" by Zhou Long. The performance signals the flexibility of the group, as Yihan Chen (pipa), Cynthia Yeh (percussion) and Emma Gerstein (flute and piccolo) are indelibly integrated. The elements, each with its own  characteristic movement in this piece, are metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The grouping, analogous to the four elements believed to have composed the universe in ancient Greek thinking, draws from Zhou Long music suggestive of its physical constituents without seeming to go off in five peculiar directions. The piece speaks with one voice, thus confirming the time-tested belief in a unitary creation.

"Metal," sharply percussive with well-designed clanginess, yields naturally to the next movement, where percussion is also prominent in "Wood" through the voices of xylophone and wood blocks. A focus on organic sounds is set in a perpetual-motion framework. "Water" seems to carry a French influence without leaning on Debussy and Ravel, who composed some of the most enduring water-based music. Crescendos and diminuendos mimic the element's flowing quality, and there's some lovely cantilena from cello and violin; the spirit of water nymphs inhabits the music. "Fire" shoots sparks and is restless rhythmically, blazing up from time to time. "Earth" seems to reflect places of both barrenness and growth. Without explicit tone-painting, "Five Elements' is freshly evocative.

Chen Yi's "Night Thoughts," whose title evokes Elliott Carter's monumental "Night Fantasies" for solo piano, is more simply laid out than the American composer's piece. Its randomness is a pleasant illusion, for the piece seems deftly organized. The new work is a 2019 adaptation for piano, violin, and cello. Its inspiration from a short atmospheric Tang Dynasty poem suggests free-floating mental activity. Calm prevails, as opposed to Carter's extremely knotty, often overwrought depiction of worry, ironic bypaths, and disturbing illusions. "Night Fantasies" suits the current time of Covid-19 nocturnal anxiety, but "Night Thoughts" is probably the piece we need more now.

Vivian Fung's "Bird Song" for violin and piano similarly doesn't piggyback on Western musical portraiture of our feathered friends. Its compact blend of the trilling charms of bird song and sudden fierce hubbub in the trees and bushes pulses with original life. As ornithologists remind us, the chirping and tweeting we often sentimentalize are actually declarations of avian territoriality, and there's a lot of that in Fung's music.

Lu Pei's "Scenes Through Window" encompasses an even wider range of experience, taking in highway travel while listening to rap with the unlikely addendum of looking out over a peaceful vista from an Indiana mountaintop. (It's thrilling to have Indiana mountaintops acknowledged in this fetching piece, because it's not among the features of the Hoosier State that often come to mind.)
Gerstein returns as guest artist for a piece that remotely suggests John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" the difference being that Adams seems to be looking more under the hood, whereas Lu Pei is glancing out a car window at landscapes rushing by. That yields naturally enough to the pastoral vision with which the piece ends.

Concluding the disc is a spiritually ambitious composition by Yao Chen called "Emanations of Tara."  The piece offers prismatic aspects (with an authentic grounding in guest Chen's pipa) of a traditional Chinese deity. With a less abstract piety, perhaps, and of course a more extensive exhibition of timbres, the work may be seen as an East-glimpses-West companion to Messiaen's "Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jesus" for solo piano.

 Again the resemblance is not explicit. Like all the works here, there is a sturdy independence and interpretive vigor in the music's links to the outside world, including other music. And the Civitas Ensemble performs with unparalleled vivacity and commitment to representing five composers of distinction.

Come to Me, My Disinfected Baby, an insane Trump-lover sings to his domestic partner

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Standalone eminence: Trumpeter Jason Palmer and his band present lost masterpieces in another form

More than 50 years ago, I took advantage of temporary residency in the Boston area to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for a chamber-music concert. It seemed  an unusually welcoming institution, redolent of Boston Brahmin culture, with a stunning collection of masterworks hanging on its walls. I remember the visual art better than the music a half-century later.

A famous unsolved art heist 30 years ago last month deprived the Gardner museum of some of its most august possessions —13 paintings by such masters as Degas, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. A fixture in Boston jazz, trumpeter Jason Palmer memorialized the theft in "The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella," recorded last May at a New York hotel and issued now by Giant Step Arts..

Palmer enlists major young talents to help him present a dozen original compositions, each one based on now-lost Gardner holdings, whose empty frames hang to represent the loss to this day. Besides the leader, the players are saxophonist Mark Turner, vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Edward Perez, and drummer Kendrick Scott.
Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black"

The pieces are generously proportioned, with lots of solo room for the participants. None of them is a noodler or a time-server. There is some treading water, to my ears, in Ross' long vibes solo during Degas'
"Cortege aux Environs do Florence," but that's a rare stretch of tedium.

Unlike some jazz that has been generated by admiration for other art forms, the compositional heft never threatens to bury the improvisations. There seems to be a formal regard for the paintings, though I've only looked at a few online. The structures avoid reliance on obvious jazz patterns, and the solos don't sound confined by the writing, but clearly complement it.

The solos in Palmer's piece on "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" are quite free and have the three-dimensional fullness of the figures in Rembrandt's painting. Typical of the performances, there is little evident attempt to mimic the subject matter or to weave in cultural allusions specific to the artworks.

Palmer and his mates deserve credit for their commitment to the independence of 21st-century acoustic jazz, as the inspiration is elaborated through fresh musical means, not "art-appreciation" tribute. Turner deserves to be singled out, because here as elsewhere in recordings I'm familiar with, his phrasing and wealth of new ideas allow him to stand out from the abundance of distinguished tenor saxophonists who continue to pour forth.

Guided by Palmer's genius, the quintet takes pains to stand parallel to the artworks with its own kind of mastery. The temptation to honor the subject matter of a painting such as Rembrandt's "Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee" is resisted, for example, though the complex rhythmic pattern laid down by Scott's drums conveys the turbulence and unease of the Biblical anecdote. Ross' solo, this time compact and to the point, may be interpreted as Jesus' terse reassurances to the frightened disciples.

But no listener should feel buttonholed by Palmer's insistence on a particular interpretation of any of the paintings. The quintet's salute to masterpieces unlikely ever to be recovered deserves a place of honor all its own.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Gabe Terracciano brings subtle fire to the jazz violin in a small-group context

Essential as it is in classical music and invaluable in such other genres as bluegrass and gypsy, the violin has a
Gabe Terracciano, bandleader-composer
long, honorable history in jazz, with enough practitioners over the past century that it has accommodated a wide range of styles. There's the proto-crooning of Joe Venuti, the florid exuberance of Stephane Grappelli, the tart, funky humor of Ray Nance, and so on.

Gabe Terracciano was a violinist new to me when I received "In Flight" (Red Piano Records) in the mail. His compositions display a personality as individual as his violin-playing. Six pieces make up this disc, generally focused on a  pianoless quartet: besides Terracciano, guitarist Adam Rogers,bassis Matt Pavolka, and drummer Matt Ferber. To bookend the date (Jan. 30, 2018), there are two extra players for the title tune and the fetching "Alfie's Lullaby." They are Dave Pietro, alto sax, and Mike Rodriguez, trumpet.

A soft-spoken player, generally, Terracciano stresses his lack of bluster with his matte tone, largely free of vibrato.  That quality, combined with his feeling for space between phrases in the ballad "When I'm in Your Arms Once More," makes him seem a bit like a violin version of early (i.e., still playing standards) Miles Davis. 

Guitarist Adam Rogers displays a similar personality, in "Way Off" taking a cue from the bandleader's introspective manner to exhibit fleetness in shadow. It's also worth noting in this track that the violinist sometimes kicks up his heels, applies some vibrato and dares to be flashy. He does this in a way that avoids being flatly self-contradictory.

He's a witty composer, as "Pundit" makes clear. It's deliberately glib, as if inviting debate and questioning while being assertive. The saxophonist makes one of two non-sextet appearances in this piece, working in sync with Terracciano.  Rogers, sometimes  mysterious though simpatico in accompaniment, is allowed to flourish in his solo here, seeming to inspire a little extra oomph from the violinist. The two are also extroverted in tandem in "Case in Point."

Listeners are warned to  be patient as the opening track, "In Flight," takes its time about taking off.  A languid violin intro leads to some trumpet-violin dialogue before the the moody violin becomes  airborne. There's a crowded outchorus that turns out to lead to an effective violin-dominated coda. Nothing is forced to happen too fast in "In Flight." Make sure your seat backs are up, your tray tables in fixed position, and take it easy. It will be a good flight.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The voice of GPS: If only we could humanize it more (An Automotive/Theatrical Fantasy)

Adam Crowe and Lauren Briggeman
I don't know how many of you have had trouble with the GPS voice, but I have, and it's become a cryptic companion whose word is mum. I feel dependent on it when I'm going to a new place and need navigational help. If I'm traveling alone, it's an especially essential tool. But I have to hear it.

In my new car, I can only get it to work on the first step of the directions I've entered. Then it clams up, and I must steal glimpses  of the screen to see where I am.

Fortunately, we took Susan's car on a trip to Dallas to see our son Theodore about a month ago, in what now seems like another world. Her vehicle has a larger, mounted screen on the dash and presumably reliable voice support.

But in leaving the city from our hosts' home, we got turn-by-turn vocal directions that took us through urban-sprawl hell. We must have entered an instruction to avoid highways. We faced the prospect of driving a thousand miles back to Indianapolis on two-lane roads, with occasional four-lane relief.

Obviously, we had to override the original itinerary, and in the process we thoroughly confused GPS. Supposing we had now stipulated a speedier way home that would give us plenty of freeway time, we were corrected several times in a row by the GPS voice: "Proceed to the route."

You know the voice, perhaps: sturdy, self-possessed, emotionally neutral — a program designed to represent the objectivity of the ever-changing map on the screen. But after several times of being corrected, I was muttering: "I'm on the damn route!" And I was sure that the neutral tone of Ms. GPS had changed. On each repetition, there was something a little sharper about it, an unmistakable timbre of reproach, it seemed to me.

It's true, I still appreciate the voice's pronunciation of "route" to rhyme with "flute." My spoken language was shaped by formative years in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where "route" never rhymed with "out," as it does in the Midwest. In the pre-interstate era, the word was heard a lot from my driving parents, and always sounded like the start of "Root, root, root for the home team."  Besides, everyone knows the song "Route 66," written by a fellow Lancastrian, Bobby Troup. You don't get your kicks on ROUT 66, even in the Midwest.

But I digress. Shortly after returning home, my arts blog assigned me to cover "The Agitators"' at Phoenix Theatre and "The Cake" at Fonseca Theatre Company. The cast of both productions featured actors whose voices I've long admired. I don't like lists of favorites, but I will say that I've always relished the voices of Lauren Briggeman and Adam Crowe. Over the years in a number of roles, they are alike in my experience in displaying firm projection, good diction, and emotionally rich voices at the lower end of their gender ranges.

Neither early March production was the best I've ever seen these two actors in, but it didn't matter. The unwarranted "Proceed to the route" scolding still stung, so an idea jelled in my head. With the choice GPS offers of a male or female voice, why not have both? And why couldn't they be Crowe's or Briggeman's? They would be programmed of course to match what the GPS voice already gives me, like "In a quarter-mile, turn left at Lee Strasberg Parkway" (or whatever). But the added benefit would be an authoritative, low-register voice with a touch of human warmth, a gift for achieving instant rapport via the most straightforward, practical text — a rapport I already treasure in their onstage performances of more engaging words spoken in character.

Then, in addition to most of the time when my driving matches what GPS has
in mind for me, I would never hear "Proceed to the route" the same way again. It would be more supportive, dagnab it, without a hint of disdain. Or so I imagine it.

And if I deliberately chose to override it, in my mind's ear I could hear, right after I had ignored Lauren's or Adam's "Proceed to the route," something like "Oh, OK, I see what you're doing. That'll work. Safe travels!"

That's all I have to say on this odd subject in this difficult time of limited travel.

 Proceed to the route, everybody.