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.