Friday, August 21, 2020

'Spirit Science': Pythagorean jazz from Tom Guarna

Do the math: Juilliard graduate and deep thinker Tom Guarna
You won't find much jazz rooted in Pythagoras, it's safe to say. But guitarist Tom Guarna has come up with a probing tribute to the ancient Greek mathematician in "Spirit Science" (Destiny Records). It's an elaborate salute from jazz quintet to Pythagoras' "sacred geometry."

Probably in mid-career (he was born in 1967), Guarna has had ample time to develop his own style as both player and composer. In "Spirit Science," he has compatible colleagues in saxophonist Ben Wendel, keyboardist Aaron Parks, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Justin Faulkner.

I like the centered, lyrical quality of Parks (former  Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association) throughout, sometimes acting as a calming influence on Wendel. Assertive and slightly raspy, the saxophonist also has a lyrical bent, his plaintive sound resembling an anxious Jan Garbarek.  Guarna's most outstanding quality as performer is his compatibility, as he unobtrusively helms ensemble concepts that are flowing and well-integrated. He's a bandleader-composer who seems to put collegiality uppermost.

Guarna's compositions grow out of his immersion in places "where math and science meet with spirit and matter." Sometimes the works are understandably more notable for their phrase structure ("Two Circles") and well-woven textures  ("The Genesis Pattern") than their melodies, but this breadth suits the ambitious reach of "Spirit Science." Motivic strength is sometimes a good stand-in for melodic distinction, as in "Metatron's Cube."

The deep sources Guarna's muse draws upon will not be accessible to everyone, but the music that has resulted rewards the attention, and can be sufficiently appreciated on a surface level as well as on one equal to his scrupulous study.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Frank Felice's 'Reflections and Whimsies': Well-grounded spiritually, with plenty of room for caprice

I began to get some feeling for Frank Felice as a 21st-century composer whose Christian faith is deeply embedded in the bulk of the pieces on the CD "Reflections and Whimsies" (Enharmonic), as well as
Frank Felice, protean and devout.
in his revealing, amiable program notes. It also came to me in one place in particular, with the aptness of Felice's musical response to the prayer that concludes the short book of Habbakuk in the Old Testament.
A portion of the prayer is included in the booklet for the listener's reflection upon "Were You Angry With the Rivers,'  because Felice's interpretation of the  text is nonvocal — for solo double bass, played  by David Murray with  his usual flair and energy.
The declamatory vigor that opens the piece, and then fuses a steady blend of assault and appeal before calming near the end, has a famous forebear, also for double bass: the orchestra section's recitative in the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that foreshadows the baritone soloist's commanding "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne, sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen."
Felice's solo bass is also addressing fractious but ultimately friendly interior voices, echoing Beethoven's appeal on the heels of discord: "O friends, not these tones, rather let us sing something more pleasant, more agreeable."  And that directive, when applied to Felice's sacred muse, puts in the forefront resolving the individual's argument with God through more pleasant forms of expression that provisionally arm the soul for struggles that inevitably recur in this life.
"Were You Angry With the Rivers" is not alone on this recording insofar as it makes vivid both polarities of the relationship. There is the mordant humor of a "radio edit" from "Proverbial Wit," in which quotations from the Book of Proverbs, are spoken with conspiratorial intensity by Mitzi Westra (the composer calls for a "dusky mezzo-soprano") against a rambunctious cello line (performed by Kurt Fowler) that seems to embody both the chummy wisdom and the blunt warnings of the text.
Felice's concoction touches on  recipes for Belgian wit beer, as well as "some definitions of tangents, all discombobulated, tweaked, folded spindled and blended into a stream-of-consciousness rumination." Resorting to Felice's own language here acknowledges, with admiration, that his verbal command of the material is almost equal to what he does with it musically.
Moving up from the lower portion of the string family, we enter serene territory, the "angenehmer" part of the Felice spectrum. That is "Reflections on a Hymn of Thanksgiving" for two violins, recorded smartly by Davis Brooks, thanks to overdubbing. This well-knit song without words has one line proceeding in agreeable counterpoint to the theme, an original by Felice that sounds as if it has always been around,  like some of the melodies of Dvorak or Bartok that give the illusion of familiarity when first heard.
The work echoes Felice's demonstrated skill with music for voice. The disc has three examples: "If Ever Two Were One" is the piece that least successfully escapes its occasion: the wedding of two close friends. The text is a poem by the 17th-century New Englander Anne Bradstreet that's often used to grace nuptial ceremonies.  Gracefully performed by soprano Esteli Gomez with the Indianapolis String Quartet, Felice's setting seems weakened by the decision to repeat some phrases; this is the kind of poem that to me suggests direct communication without the need to underline bits by having them sung again. I particularly find that the integrity of the verse is violated by Felice's interpolation of "I love you" several times, an unnecessary declaration given that Bradstreet's six couplets convey that message completely. Then there's an alteration in the next-to-last line that mistakenly allows "persever" to become "persevere"; Bradstreet's less usual version of the word allows both meter and rhyme to match. The effect is wiped out in the Felice version.
Yet I like the way the string quartet dutifully yet imaginatively reinforces the voice, a skill given sustained attention in "Preserve Me, O Lord," a setting of Felice's delicate paraphrase of Psalm 16. Here some text repetition works well. But most amazing is the fervor and poise of Westra's singing, which first impressed me years ago when she was alto soloist in Handel's "Messiah" at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church and performed the great aria "He was despised" about as well as I ever expect to hear it. The partnership with the Indianapolis Quartet is inspired, and richly rewarded by Felice's writing. The skill with which he constructs phrases that allow the words to glow is unfailing: I especially admired "The lines are laid for me in pleasant places; indeed I have a beautiful portion!" Talk about the "angenehm" side of Felice: Here it was at the pinnacle.
The CD is bookended by two string works from the composer's secular side that are comfortable enough without bearing a hint of background music. "Two by Four" carries the artisanal implication of its title; a musical carpenter sets to work and comes up with two linked pieces for an unconventional string quartet: three violins and a viola. The musicians are Zachary DePue, Joana Genova, Sherry Hong, and Michael Strauss, who deliver a crisp, playfully intense account of the piece.
The Indianapolis String Quartet hits the children's books charmingly in Felice's "Five Whimsies."
The finale allows Felice to release his inner child: "Five Whimsies for Non-Grownups," a winning string quartet when heard in concert (where I first encountered it) receives full commitment by the Indianapolis Quartet here. Each whimsy refers to a place in a favorite children's book that clearly resonates with the composer across the years. I won't go into detail here, but the work amounts to twelve delightful minutes of frolicsome variety. It delves deep to a degree, in that the openness to mystery typical of children is also captured in the music. At certain ages, we are receptive to both scary and comforting things. Either can be "angenehm," given a child's unimpaired sense of wonder, with which you as a grownup seeking your inner "non" can connect throughout this captivating composition.
All told, Felice, as represented by this disc, may be summed up as a prayerful pixie, somewhat on the order of Francis Poulenc, but with an unmistakable American accent. His whimsies and reflections ultimately proceed from the same idiosyncratic place, and that makes this diverse anthology of Felice works a felicitous listening experience.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Pacifica Quartet offers first-time recordings of three works by currently active women composers

 Among the prominent string quartets well-represented on recordings, the Pacifica Quartet is also known through concerts (before the pandemic shut down most concert activity) to music-lovers in central Indiana.Pacifica Quartet puts across three new works Pacifica Quartet records three new pieces by women.

Further evidence of its international reach, as it has adjusted to personnel changes after making its reputation, is "Contemporary Voices" (Cedille Records). New recordings of works by Shulamit Ran (a world premiere), Jennifer Higdon, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich make up the program. It's played convincingly by violinists Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman; violist Mark Holloway, and cellist Brandon Vamos.

The fifth performer, who like the quartet is associated with the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, is Otis Murphy, brought in for Zwilich's Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet.

Zwilich's compositions have been championed here by John Nelson when he was music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and she composed the commissioned work for the 8th Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.  Murphy has been heard as an ISO guest artist and, with its original personnel, the Pacifica was engaged for the chamber-music round of the American Pianists' Association competition in 2018.

Zwilich's work fuses Murphy's mellifluous playing to the string-quartet genre, most notably in the fast second movement. Brisk "chase" music with heavy accents characterizes the movement, and the saxophone is very much a part of the texture. 

The procedure is carried off well in the other movements, with a slight boost into a solo role for saxophone in the finale, whose pastoral opening gives way to blues-flavored music before the work comes to a thoughtful close. The opening movement is slow throughout, and charms the listener with a kind of ambivalent march that somewhat recalls Prokofiev. Zwilich, of course, by now has her own signature to apply to any such evocation.

Higdon's three-movement "Voices" lends its cryptic title to the whole release. The prolific composer is well-known — also somewhat in Indianapolis, where her violin concerto was premiered by Hilary Hahn with the ISO in 2009.  Untypically aggressive at the start, "Voices"  has a spiky first movement aptly titled "Blitz." The emphasis on abstract stage portraits of human expression carries through in "Soft Enlacing," whose quirky title signals the manner in which its restlessness hints strongly at desiring rest. To conclude the voice symbolism magically, the energy and commitment of "Grace" captures the way that  quality comes to us with effort and a surge of emotional and intellectual focus in tandem, which I take to be the main import of the movement's climax.

Ran's "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory" (String Quartet No. 3) memorializes Felix Nussbaum, a German-Jewish painter who died in the Holocaust. Ran learned about the artist while in residence at the American Academy in Rome nine years ago. She was touched by his commitment to his work all the while knowing he was doomed, along with so many others.

The work is startling, yet very much grounded in clear-eyed insights into Nussbaum's life and art. "That Which Happened," the first movement, passes its febrile agitation around the quartet. The sense of life insistent upon expression even amid regime-caused interruptions is intensely represented. In "Menace," the second movement, a whistling episode in unison with violin near the end caps music of wry humor and a sort of warped lyricism. 

"If I perish — do not let my paintings die" is a quotation from the artist that functions as a title and governs the third movement, where persistence in the face of adversity seems to be represented by repeated plucked figures and wispy runs. "Shards, Memory" wraps up this riveting work with its wistfulness and insistence on tugging the mind toward a past that, as Nussbaum and millions of others were to learn, was not to yield to a bright, whole future but rather the shards of Kristallnacht and the ruin of European Jewish life that followed. Nussbaum died at Auschwitz in 1944. 





Thursday, August 6, 2020

Maria Schneider fleshes out her concerns about AI and the natural world in 'Data Lords'

There are extensive notes by the "Data Lords" composer about the music on this two-disc set. The listener ignores them with difficulty, but maybe that's a core part of Maria Schneider's intention. The much-admired bandleader wants to juxtapose our entanglement in "The Digital World" (Disc 1) with the realm the human race has inherited over countless eons, "Our Natural World" (Disc 2). You can find it on
Maria Schneider extends her creative breadth

The choice of the first modifier in each phrase is significant: The natural world is "ours" because of our overdetermined inheritance of its forces, fates, and pleasures; but if we look at what we've created artificially in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, technology's threat of separation from us is signaled by that "the."

The music on the two discs is self-justifying but unfailingly programmatic as well. "A World Lost" opens the first "Data Lords" CD; Ben Monder's floating, lyrical guitar line, at first accompanied just by piano and percussion, dominates. After the band joins in, Rich Perry's tenor sax solo etches a lament on top of the ensemble, which takes on fleeting dissonance and a telling anxiety.

Subsequently, two pieces that bulk large in "The Digital World" — "Don't Be Evil" and "Data Lords" (the title piece) — seem too long. All sorts of menace occur to Schneider to evoke in the former work, from quavery muted brass through splashes of piano chords and arpeggios against the ensemble to the quote of the funereal "Taps" at the very end. (The title kept me thinking of Thad Jones' "Don't Git Sassy," but that association may be accidental, given the Google motto she explicitly evokes.)

The occasion via commission for those two pieces suggests that something quite substantial was required of Schneider. What she came up with  nearly overwhelms "The Digital World" as a suite.

"Our Natural World" (in and out of the quote marks) is where Schneider's deepest and most genuine sympathies lie. You must still deal with a Schneider tendency to maximize her virtuosity as an arranger, to avoid saying too little with her expert forces. The gracefulness with which the carefully selected solo showcases are filled — particularly by Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Gary Versace, accordion, and Marshall Gilkes, trombone — puts across the real-world human connectivity she claims for her music. And some who admire her extension of big-band tone painting for which Gil Evans is the archetype will have no problem with what I sometimes hear to be rhetorical overkill across Schneider's elaborate canvases.

"Data Lords" will join a discography that speaks well for the expressive amplitude of large-ensemble jazz.