Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A-Minor and Symphonies 1, 3 and 4

This 1990 double CD release from the German budget label Pilz provides some of the best music from Robert Schumann (1810-1856), whose life and career were cut short from mental illness, but whose massive catalog of piano works and four symphonies are among the finest music from the so-called Romantic period.

Schumann was influenced by such major figures as Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn, but his performing career on piano was ended by an injury to his right hand, forcing him to focus exclusively on composition.  He came into prominence with his piano works during the 1830s and, the next decade, branched out into symphonic work.

His muse was Clara Wieck, a virtuoso pianist and daughter of Schumann's teacher, who resisted their romance even as they married in 1840 when Schumann went to court to overcome a legal objection.  Clara was ambitious, controlling, and constantly championed her husband even as she chafed at the restraints of raising a large family (there were eight children), managing the household, and continuing her performance career.


Schumann's mental illness worsened by the early 1850s and he attempted suicide before being placed into an asylum where he remained until his death.  One of his few visitors (Clara was not allowed because of concerns of his mental state) was a young Johannes Brahms, who was a friend and who the Schumanns championed, though it was years before Brahms made his mark.

The piano concerto on this set was recorded by The Radio Symphonic Orchestra at Ljubljana in Slovenia, conducted by Marko Munih and Dubravka Tomsic as soloist, while the three symphonies were conducted by Henry Adolph and performed by the Philharmonica Slavonica.  To these untutored ears, the playing is fine, especially the concerto, and Schumann's expressive, dynamic and emotional compositions seem to come out well.  The pieces abound with beautiful melodies and pleasing harmony.

Schumann's works may be very familiar, but they are always welcome to hear again and again, because of their complexity, richness and expressiveness.


Monday, April 16, 2018

Soul of Angola: Anthologie de la Musique Angolaise, 1965-1975

Angola is a country the history of which is filled with strife, from the colonial domination of the Portuguese for some 500 years to the 27-year civil war which followed independence in 1975 and which ravaged the southwestern African nation of about 28 million (with many killed and displaced in the last forty years).

So, it was with great curiosity that this stellar two-disc recording, released in 2001 by the Lusafrica label, based in Paris, was acquired, because the time period covered was the last decade before independence when political agitation grew among Angolans.  The album's liner notes by Leonard Silva, refer to the idea "the urban Angolan musics of the 1967/70 period were born from a strong desire to oppose a cultural resistance to the colonial Portuguese power."  It was also asserted that it was impossible to separate the independence movement from the "new musical creativity rebirth," which was a form of "soft protest."


What emerges on this impressive anthology are pieces centered on treble-heavy guitar, with often infectious and driving rhythms and nods to British and French pop-rock infleuences and a variety of African and Afro-American percussion styles from the adjacent Congo (a book just finished two days ago detailed to horror of the Belgian dominance of that part of Africa), Brazil (another Portuguese colony) and the Caribbean.  This reflects another fascinating combination of musical sources in a place that stamped these with its own identity.

It was stated in the liners that, when Portuguese authorities took a new tack in 1968 in dealing with Angola, one of these was the creation of a national radio station that gave voice to the new wave of young musicians featured on this recording.  Silva observed that listeners "will be able somehow to recount one of the most important stages in the historic march of the Angolan artists, for the recognition of their musical art and culture."  While some of the musicians featured on this remarkable album died during the civil war years, Soul of Angola is a document of remarkable artistic endeavor in an era of struggle for a country still seeking stability.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Masters of Old-Time Country Autoharp

Somtimes a recording is (or a group of them are) acquired out of sheer curiosity and this great Smithsonian Folkways release is one of those.  An expanded version of a 1962 Folkways album, this disc features nearly forty short pieces played on the autoharp, an instruments invented in the 1870s as a variation of a zither. 

Several posts on this blog, mainly of music from other countries, have highlighted instruments that are related to the zither and dulcimer, most recently the post on Lily Yuan, a Chinese master of her instrument.  Here is an album focusing on performers in the Appalachian region of the southern U.S. performing on the autoharp, which reached this area as the 19th century yielded to the 20th.

The players are Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, the first person to record on the instrument back in 1924; Kilby Snow, who held the instrument upright and played what he called "drag notes," or slurs or hammering on the strings across frets; and the father-and-son duo of Neriah and Kenneth Benfield, who played duets and solo pieces on the recording.  All four men are masters, though Snow is particularly impressive for his innovative technique.  There is accompaniment on harmonica (Stoneman), guitar, and banjo, as well.


Spearheading the recording was Mike Seeger, who came from a prominent musical family that included his half-brother Pete Seeger of the famed folk group The Weavers, and who was founder of the New Lost City Ramblers during the Folk Revival of the late 1950s.  Seeger's notes are very interesting and informative as he detailed the use of the autoharp and discussed the musicians, with whom he accompanied on several tracks.  Song notes of tunes that are both traditional pieces and originals by the musicians are also notable and are by Charles Wolfe.

The sounds generated by the autoharp are clear, ringing and, to this listeners, inherently uplifting.  The problem was that the instrument needed frequent tuning, which led people to abandon it when the fad wore off and it was easier to turn to other instruments, such as banjo or guitar.  More modern versions, from the 1960s onward, were improved to avoid the need for frequent retuning.  Masters of Old-Time Country Autoharp is an excellent introduction to the instrument and the Southern tradition of playing it, even for those who might not think country, folk or bluegrass is of interest.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Ornette Coleman Quartet: This Is Our Music

After the controversial splash (or tidal wave, maybe) that the Ornette Coleman Quartet made when it played its legendary run at the Five Spot in New York in 1959, the group was signed to a major label deal with Atlantic Records.

What resulted was an amazing run of phenomenal recordings that raised a ruckus among those who thought Coleman was a fraud, in his playing and compositional and conceptual methods, but also was inspiring to a new generation of creative artists and adventurous listeners drawn to his freer ideas of performance.

The third Atlantic release, and Coleman's fifth album overall, This Is Our Music, was recorded in summer 1960 and released early the following year.  It included pocket trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden from his previous work, but also featured drummer Ed Blackwell, replacing Billy Higgins.  The latter was an important part of the success of The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, but Blackwell proved to be more than a worthy successor, with his particular way of accompanying the soloists and, as Coleman wrote in the liners, his ability to "play rhythm so close to the tempered notes that one seems to hear them take each other's places."


This Is Our Music starts off with the hard-hitting and propulsive "Blues Connotation," which easily has one of the most memorable melodies in all of Coleman's work.  This high-energy masterpiece is followed by one of the most haunting and off-kilter ballads in the composer's palette, the stunning "Beauty is a Rare Thing" (which became the title of the 1990s box set of Coleman's complete recordings for Atlantic.)

All the tunes on this album are excellent and showcase not only the fine solo work, including some of the more interesting playing by the leader in his long career, but also the staggering interplay among the four musicians as an integrated ensemble--a core component of Coleman's hard-to-articulate concept of "harmolodics."  Notably, for a composer who almost never performed covers, there is a pretty straight-ahead version of the Gershwin brothers' chestnut "Embraceable You" that stands out amid the originals.  Part of the immense appeal (or the big turnoff) of Coleman's work in those early years was his unpredictability and willingness to explore wherever the music took the players and the listeners.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Earle Brown: Folio and Four Systems

Considered to be part of the New York School of modern composers, along with John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, Earle Brown developed an "open form" system of composition in the early 1950s that allowed for a measure of authorial intent and choice and improvisation by the performers.

While some early examples of the method were very abstract and left a great deal of room for musicians to interpret what Brown aimed for, later pieces had more concrete notational concepts in them.  In any case, the composer's ideas were a radical departure from conventional composition, even if Cage became even more open in his way of composing and Feldman retained more traditionnal forms of notation.


It's small wonder that John Zorn was greatly inspired by Brown's methods and that this recording is issued under his Tzadik label.  Zorn and the Earle Brown Foundation, celebrating what would have been the composer's 80th birthday in 2006 (he died four years prior), assembled a remarkable group of musicians for Folio and Four Systems.

The first piece, "Folio" was recorded by Brown as he performed trumpet (his main instrument) along with percussion and bass, and another work, "June 1953," was orchestrated by him withh Wolff playing piano as part of a quartet. Others on the album include the amazing vocalist Joan LaBarbara, the remarkable pianist Stephen Drury, noise musician Merzbow (Masami Akita), laptop electronic performer Ikue Mori, violinist Mark Feldman, composer and electronic musician Morton Subotnick (just highlighted on this blog), and the great trumpeter Leo Wadada Smith. 


There is a stunning variety of sounds, textures and colors on this recording that illustrate what Micah Silver, in his contribution to the informative liners, describes as "Brown's attempt to take his music to the brink.  Not to leave it there, but to visit the brink in order that he could explore his way home (wherever that would be) more freely." 

Brown is quoted writing "With FOLIO I intentionally extended the compositional aspect and the performance process as far out of normal realms as I could, just short of producing nothing at all."  The idea was to be produce work between "extremes of finite control" and "extremes of infinite ambiguity."  He also noted that truth is a mobile point on an arc between two ends of a paradox.  Translated into music, that can be very challenging for the listener, but a little patience and an open mind (for open form) can be very rewarding.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Lily Yuan: The Ancient Art Music of China

This is another great Lyrichord world music release, featuring the masterful Lily Yuan on the yangqin, a hammered dulcimer or zither.  The liner notes explain that what distinguishes the instrument from similar ones in other parts of the world is the use of bamboo hammers or beaters that provide a much different range of timbre and dynamics.

The word yangqin means "foreign stringed instrument," and it is likely, the notes continue, that it migrated from Persia, where it is known as the santur (other posts on this blog have highlighted Persian recordings including that instrument.)  Interestingly, the yangqin has only in recent decades been utilized as a solo instrument, as on this album, because it has traditionally been used to accompany other instruments in ensemble or vocalists.


Yuan was raised in Shanghai and was a child prodigy performing frequently on television and radio and, at 11, entered a major music conservatory in Beijing and performed for such dignataries as President Carter, among many others.  She studied in Shanghai and joined the faculty of the music conservatory there.  She later received a master's degree in music from the University of Toronto and began performing widely in North America.  For years, she worked and taught on the East Coast of the U.S., but is now based in Irvine, California, teaching the yangqin and piano.

The nine pieces on this amazing recording feature Yuan's remarkable abilities, not just technically (although her abilities here are stunning), but also in evoking emotional range. The performances reflect the very long historical traditions of classical Chinese music and the resonant tones on the yangqin provide a depth and shimmering quality that brings the pieces beautifully to life.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Unknown Instructors: The Way Things Work

It was really great to find that Mike Watt and George Hurley, the propulsive and creative rhythm section of the great 80s band Minutemen and then the underrated and excellent Firehose, reteamed for a new project in 2003 called Unknown Instructors.

The duo wer teamed with guitarist Joe Baiza, another veteran of the South Bay punk scene, and poet Dan McGuire, who spearheaded the project on his own dime after a long friendship with Watt, along with guest Jack Brewer, Baiza's bandmate in Saccharine Trust. The band recorded The Way Things Work in a single marathon session at a San Pedro studio in August 2003 with Baiza and McGwire producing the album for Chicago-based Smog Veil Records, which released the album a little over two years later.




McGuire's poetry is very evocative, providing fascinating vignettes of gritty street life (he's from Toledo, an old industrial city), unusual and puzzling situations, and a delivery that is filled with irony and a world-weary tone.  Behind him, Baiza plays trebly meandering lines and riffs and McGuire has said he put together the band and recruited Watt and Hurley so the guitarist could burst out with high energy playing, which didn't really happen on the record, but it was, after all, a one-day improvisational experiment.

Watt, a master at accompaniment, lays down solid grooves and interpolations in his distinctive fashion, and Hurley keeps things moving briskly by ranging through his kit with strength and a tasty range of color and texture on the traps, cymbals and bass drums.  On his tracks, Brewer's voice projects a trembly fragility and, interestingly, a sense of lightness even with the dark matter of the poetry.

Even as a first-take experiment melding poetry and improvised music that was channeled in a different and more effective way on the band's second album, The Master's Voice (look for it in a future post), The Way Things Work does work pretty well, embodying what Baiza has referred to as the "sentiment and the spirit" of the exploration of punk rock, even as it sounds very different from common expectations of what that should be.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Miles at the Fillmore: Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3

The "Bootleg Series" of live recordings by Miles Davis and various ensembles, now comprising six volumes, released by Sony Music ranging from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, can be viewed, on one hand, as an attempt to mine the vaults for further product and trade off the legacy of the legendary trumpeter, bandleader, and mercurial figure. 

Conversely, fans see these, variably, as valuable additions to his discography in which concert performances, much of which was previously unreleased (or, if so, were heavily edited) demonstrate the remarkable interplay and sonic power of the Dark Magus' groups over a radically changing period.  After all, no figure in jazz morphed musically (and sartorially) so memorably without compromising his integrity as Davis.

This third volume of performances at the Fillmore East in New York, with some additions of parts of gigs at the companion venue, the Fillmore West, in San Francisco, is amazing, not just for the often-blistering, pounding, and soaring work done by a stunning band, but, because of the context. 

Davis agreed to play shows at the historic rock venues, owned by impresario Bill Graham, as a vehicle to get his music out to younger people.  This was a very shrewd move, given the massive decline of interest by those folks in jazz from the mid-Sixties onward, but it also exposed him to often cockeyed criticism that he was selling out (yes, that 26-minute version of "Bitches Brew" on the album of the same name was the easiest way to crack the Top Ten.)

It is strange to note that Davis opened (yes, OPENED) for Laura Nyro, Steve Miller, and Neil Young and Crazy Horse, at some of these shows.  From a purely commercial perspective, it was obviously necessary (at least to Graham), but artistically, it was clear that, good as all of those performers were, Miles and his band were masters (including technically and in innovation in sound) way above the levels of the headliners.


In any case, here are staggering performances of classics of the Bitches Brew era, with the title track, "It's About That Time," and "Spanish Key" complemented by "Directions," standout from the mid-Sixties quintet, and other tunes from earlier incarnations (including strange truncated verions of "I Fall in Love Too Easily," added, perhaps, as brief quiet interludes to the bubbling cauldron of intense electric sound otherwise served piping hot to the mostly white, young audiences.)

There was a two-LP (or CD) album released by Columbia at the time, but it was heavily and interestingly edited by producer Teo Macero.  The full pieces are restored in this edition, handled by noted producer Michael Cuscuna and Richard Seidel (whose detailed liners with great photos are also great to have.)  The San Francisco performances, from April, included young sax player Steve Grossman, Chick Corea on electric piano, Airto Moreira on a variety of percussion instruments (cool additions of texture and color), Dave Holland on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. 

This was a great band, though Grossman, who was 19, was criticized for overabundance in his playing.  But, then, for the June shows in New York, Keith Jarrett was brought in on electric organ (heard through the right channel, where Corea was in the left) and his prodigious talents added to those of the remarkable Corea (the great ensemble Circle morphed from this pairing) to really enhance the sound of this unbeatable ensemble.

Miles' electric period is the favorite of this blogger, though all periods are valued for various reasons, and this 4-CD deep digging into live performance of an astounding group is really a revelation.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Mustafa al Sunni: Songs of the Sudan

This fantastic Nimbus Records release features the music of Sudanese oud master and singer Mustafa al Sunni.  Accompanied by percussionist Abd al Haziz Karar, whose work is sensitive and subtle, but highly effective, al Sunni plays his instrument with great skill and variety, while his keening vocals are beautifully done.

The liner notes do a great job of providing historical context for the music of this nation that has been rent apart by factional fighting for so many years, an irony given the many references in the essay to the wide-ranging influences in the music from many parts of northern and central Africa and beyond.  The narrowed focus of political factions has so little to do with the long tradition of musical elements that are imported and absorbed into existing local ones.


Also noteworthy are the lyrics and the emphasis on poetry, whether the songs are traditional turath, or those passed down through generations, praise songs called savra that talk about the bravery of warriors, or hagiba, classical pieces with the most intent poetic lyrics.  The intensity of these can be read in the translations provided in the notes.

Hearing the nimble playing of the oud, the excellent percussive accompaniment and the yearning singing and then thinking of the horrors that have emerged from the Sudan over recent decades, this recording is a reminder of how the music of Mustafa al Sunni represents a part of his nation's heritage and traditions that hopefully will survive the terror and turmoil.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Magic Flute

It never gets old listening to the remarkable music of Mozart, especially because of the great variety of his output, the brilliance of his compositions, and the range of emotional, humorous and series content that can be found in his work.  Whether it involves string quartets, symphonies, operas or whatever other form, Mozart's music is uniformly mindboggling.

The Magic Flute was the master's last opera and was still running in performance at Vienna when Mozart died in 1791 at age 35.  The popularity of German magic operas was at a peak at the time and the composer worked with a theater manager and director to mount the story.


It involved a Queen of the Night enlisting a prince to rescue her daughter from a high priest, though it turned out that the priest was actually leading a respectable and honorable order and the queen was evil and trying to regain control of her daughter.  A simple man accompanying the prince fails in a series of trials during the quest but is compensated with the love of a woman.

Mozart's masterful melding of instrumentation, massing and use of harmony and melody, with the voices is, even for this amateur, something to behold.  Yet, the opera is well-known for its extraordinary difficulty for vocalists because of the challenging ranges required.  From the outset, The Magic Flute was a resounding success and the composer attending many performances, registering his pride in the reception, though his death soon followed.

This recording, made in June 1993 in Budapest by the Failoni Orcehstra, conducted by Michael Halász, and the Hungarian Festival Chorus, is beautifully recorded and performed and the Naxos Records release is a pleasure to listen to.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Sandoz: Dark Continent

After the dissolution of Cabaret Voltaire in 1994, after twenty years of some of the most adventurous and compelling electronic music around, Richard H. Kirk threw himself into a prodigious period of work, releasing many recordings under a panoply of nom de plumes.

One that he'd started in CV's last phase of work and then expanded on afterward was Sandoz, launched in 1992 and named for the Swiss pharmaceutical laboratory where LSD was developed in the late 1930s.  There have been several Sandoz releases over the years and Dark Continent, which came out in 1996 on tJon Wonzencroft's great Touch label, is a particular favorite.  The album is culled from two sessions, starting with a six-song extended play that appeared in 1993 and then another quartet of pieces recorded three years later for the CD release.


Sandoz has strong elements of African rhythm and percussion, as well as reggae and dub touches (a Sandoz album, the excellent Chant to Jah, was devoted to the latter) layered in with often lush electronic sounds.  Dark Continent is a very consistent recording in terms of the quality of the pieces which always manage to provide distinctive aural touches among the steady repetition of rhythms and beats.

In late 2016, Mute Records issued a box set of Sandoz recordings from 1992-1994 including a remastered version of Dark Continent, the original of which has long been out of print and can be hard to find.  That set and a larger collection of Kirk solo work issued at the same time provide a great overview of the work of a prolific and diverse artist using electronic musical resources to always compelling effect.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Marilyn Crispell: Live in San Francisco

With John Coltrane's A Love Supreme as the spiritual inspiration and Cecil Taylor as a aesthetic catalyst, among other influences, Marilyn Crispell took her supremely gifted playing from the formalism of her training at the New England Conservatory to the improvisatory heart and soul of the pinnacle of jazz piano.

This Music and Arts Programs of America release is largely from a concert in San Francisco in October 1989 and demonstrated Crispell's talent for creative explorations of the instrument through her originals, as well as a highly personal interpretation of classic standards.  As a great bonus, excerpts from Crispell's duet performance with the great Anthony Braxton, with whom she played for several years, at a live performance at Vancouver, and a Knitting Factory in New York concert with Reggie Workman (featuring a young Don Byron on clarinet) are also included.


The first two numbers, "Penumbra" and "Zipporah" are excellent examples of how Crispell plays with spiritual and rhythmic emphasis in her original pieces.  She is not just a clone of Taylor, though the influence is very clear.  Crispell speed, intensity and precision are also tied in to a heightened sense of off-kilter melodic feeling with a nod to Thelonious Monk, whose "Ruby, My Dear" is covered beautifully and distinctively, as is a great rendition of Coltrane's "Dear Lord."  In the notes, Crispell pays homage to Braxton and his ideas of "using space and silence as much as sound, and using different textures."  Her take of the old chestnut, "When I Fall in Love" is breathtaking as she adds so much to the standard with her sense of rhythm and juxtaposition of complex chordal voicings.

And, the additional 15 or so minutes of her work with Braxton and Workman show just how sensitive and distinctiveness an accompanist she can be, whether in the duet form with the former or the sextet, including the remarkable vocalist Jeanne Lee (check her on Archie Shepp's Blase album from 1969 on BYG Actuel).  Live in San Francisco is a tremendous showcase of Crispell's artistry in all of its multidimensional aspects.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Morton Subotnick: The Key to Songs/Return

A native of Los Angeles, Morton Subotnick is a remarkable composer who works with electronics in highly compelling and very interesting ways.  Subotnick is best known for his 1968 work, Silver Apples of the Moon, which was celebrated in Los Angeles recently on the 50th anniversary of the landmark piece.  While attention is rightly being given to Silver Apples as a seminal piece of electronic music, this post looks at  Subotnick's mid-1980s works, The Key to Songs and Return —A Triumph of Reason, which are amazing works, released on New Albion Records, which has released so much great modern music, utilizing YCAMS, the Yamaha Computer Assisted Music System, with the latter completely generated through that means, while the former utilizes that with acoustic instrumentation.

The Key to Songs comprises, the liners recount, "music for an imaginary ballet" based on a pictorial collage novel by surrealist painter Max Ernst, with one of the chapters labeled "The Key to Songs."
Subotnick uses two pianos, marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, viola and cello along with YCAMS to generate a dramatic and often frenetic score that mimics Ernst's collages, which are said to be dramatic, often erotic and playing with the line between reality and fantasy.  Based solely on listening to the music, the latter point is notable in that telling acoustic from electronic instrumentation can be somewhat challenging.  The composer even wrote instructions for the musicians to exaggerate their movements so audiences could tell the difference.  The piece is dynamic and hypnotic.


Return was a commission to mark the appearance of Halley's Comet in February 1986 (it had last been seen in April 1910 and is predicted to return in July 2061).  Comets were believed in ancient days to the harbinger of ruin and destruction on one hand and the auspicious indicator of great benefit on the other.  Edmund Halley, in 1705, determined that a comet seen twenty-three years before would return about every 75 years.  Subotnick's score "depicts the comet's passage through time" and the first part reflecting the era to 1758 when the comet's return was given Halley's name and the second for the period after that and to the future.  The computer-generated music reflects music heard in the mid-1700s, specifically the work of Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti and then quiet, contemplative passages alternate with the dymanic, intense bursts of sound marking the onset of the comet and "the triumph of reason" in Halley's work.  In the second part, he evokes 18th and 19th century music (Mozart and Liszt), then ragtime for 1910, and electronic sounds for the current and future periods.

Computer and electronic music is often denounced for being cold and emotionless, but here are two fascinating recordings that show how these types can be skillfully blended with acoustic instruments to provide richness or depth or, on its own, created to bring a richness and diversity that belies that criticism.  This recording is an ear-opening exploration into the possibillites of electronic music as evocative in ways it is accused of not being.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Paco Peña & Eduardo Falú: Encuentro

This 1989 Nimbus Records  release features the stellar talents of Argentinian guitarist and singer Eduardo Falú and Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco Peña, whose work has been highlighted here before.

Encuentro is a fine encounter between two maestros from different countries and generations, but whose artistry with the Spanish guitar is brought together beautifully.  The fourteen tracks on the album feature four with Falú as sole or part composer and three that feature his rich, evocative vocalizations.  These latter seemed clearly sequenced to provide breaks amid the instrumental pieces and they do that job quite well.

There are times when liner notes provide great background information on the performers, pieces, instruments and musical traditions and there are others in which they are well-intended, but not particularly informative and can be paeans to the performers that lay it on a bit a too thick.


That is the case with Félix Grande's tribute to Falú and Peña--the words "mankind" and "arts" are capitalized; musical instruments "affirm human and divine truths"; and we are entreated to listen to the music "as if it were the mysterious turns of the wheels of our destiny."  There's much more, but the examples give plenty of an indication of Grande's expansive (get it?) essay's thrust.

Falú who had a distinguished career spanning some sixty years died in Buenos Aires five years ago at age 90, while Peña, now in his mid-seventies, released his last album four years ago but is still active with upcoming shows in London, Hong Kong and Pudong, China.  Encuentro is a gorgeous album, melding approaches from a common background with signature personal touches.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Dave Van Ronk: The Folkways Years, 1959-1961

This amazing album documents a short period of time, 1959 to 1961, when Dave Van Ronk recorded for Moses Asch's Folkways label, and there's a great deal of remarkable guitar playing and singing by a man who insisted he was not a folk singer, but a jazz singer.

Undoubtedly, Van Ronk was heavily indebted to black musicians, including blues, jazz and gospel artists including Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, and the Reverend Gary Davis, and it is great to have his recollections about those years generally and the songs on the record specifically.  He writes with great humor and irony, as well as affection for his influences and confederates.


He also was quite honest, noting that, with "River, She Come Down," the tune was "the only song I ever wrote that made me any money, and I hate it."  He considered the piece "as a guitar exercise" with lyrics consisting of "nonsensical doggerel."  But when Peter, Paul and Mary covered the tune, renamed "Bamboo," for their debut album, it "sold seven trillion copies."  Still, Van Ronk concluded, "I shared the royalties (and the chagrin)" with Dick Weissman, who came up with the chorus.

While Van Ronk also offered that he should have waited a year or two before recording the pieces and thought of the work "as a journeyman's progress report" who "starting to get the hang of it," the album is filled with some excellent fret work, distinctive singing, and potent mixtures of humor and activism.  It wasn't more than a few years before folk was passed by in favor of rock (note Van Ronk's friend Bob Dylan's decision to go electric in 1965) and Van Ronk became something of a forgotten figure, though he remained active until his death in 2002 at age 65.

This album, though, is a potent reminder of what an immensely talented musician Dave Van Ronk was and it's great that the Smithsonian put this together after its absorption of the Folkways inventory.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Original James P. Johnson, 1942-1945: Piano Solos

Here's a stellar Smithsonian Folkways release of solo piano recordings from the mid-1940s of the breathtaking James P. Johnson (well, except, according to an AllMusic review by Scott Yanow, for two tunes by Cliff Jackson, who went uncredited.)  That still leaves plenty of classic stride piano playing by a man whose life bridged ragtime and jazz.

Recorded for Moses Asch and his Folkways Records label during the war years of 1942-1945, the album is filled with great melodicism, the left hand "striding" between the bass region and chordal playing, gorgeous fills and other elements.  Stride piano playing is known to be technically challenging, but Johnson make it sound so easy with his smooth precision.


There are so many stunning moments on this album that it's hard to highlight particular songs and the range of pieces, from Joplin to Gershwin to W. C. Handy and Johnson's own compositions, is pertty impressive and spans a range of decades.

Probably the most interesting is the marathon 12-minute "Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody," which finds Johnson using the most of his considerable resources to play an extended meditation drawing from the blues, ragtime, classical and other elements to create a masterpiece of variety unlike anything else on the album.

Kudos to Smithsonian Folkways for transferring the material from the original sources and remastering it for excellent sound, given that the recordings are seventy-five years or so old.  The liner notes also have great information on Johnson and the recordings.  As a historical document and for fantastic entertainment, it's hard to beat "The Original James P. Johnson."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

New York's Ensemble for Early Music: Istanpitta

This blogger's first hint at early music was listening to a Dead Can Dance album in the early 90s, but it wasn't until some years later that a recording of medieval music played on original instruments was purchased, one of several in the collection.

Of these, one of the finest is this 1995 release on Lyrichord's Early Music Series, highlighting the excellent work of New York's Ensemble for Early Music, led by Frederick Renz and featuring guest artist, percussionist Glen Velez.  Playing period instruments, including familiar ones like lutes, bagpipes, and dulcimers, but also some obscure examples such as the ciaramella, vielle, rebec, gemshorn, and organistrum, the ensemble described itself as "A Medieval Dance Band."  That being the case, they play on this album as if they're partying like it's 1299!

Styles of performance include the estampie (or, in Italian, "istanpitta") for five of the tracks, four saltarellos and two sets of dance pairs.  As the liner notes from a University of Toronto music professor, Timothy McGee, indicate, even with the information for about 50 total works and fragments and descriptions of instruments from the era, "poetic/artistic license is always present to varying degrees" even in period literature describing the music.


Renz, in his notes, wrote that, based on what is known, he "has invented accompanying parts in two and three voices for the estampies" outside of the established melodic line.  He added that "the arrangements heard on this recording are this writer's realizations with improvisations by the members of the Ensemble for Early Music."  This, he observed, is "in the spirit of extemporization practiced by dance musicians from the middle ages to the present" and "will be interpreted anew in performances to come."

With the added support of the masterful Velez, the group's work on Istanpitta is very impressive, espcially with the clarity of the recording and the acoustics provided at the St. James Chapel at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, where the taping was done in November 1994.  Anyone curious about or interested in early music should enjoy this wonderful work.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Pamir: Songs and Music from the Roof of the World

This sensational recording from the French label Musique du Monde features the captivating music of the Pamir mountain area of the Badakhshan region of the Central Asia country of Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, China and other republics of the former Soviet Union.

The Pamir range is not as well known as the Himalayas, but has peaks that go as high as 24,000 feet and it is a rugged but beautiful area where the famed Silk Road between China and Europe passes and Marco Polo passed through Badakhshan in 1270 to get to China.

While the music of the region dates back many centuries, study of it is relatively recent and recordings were few.  These performances were captured at community events and structures, including at weddings, funerals and dance performances.  Lutes of five and six strings, a fiddle, and a variety of percussion instruments for the basis of the music.  Eight musicians are the performers, including singers as well as instrumentalists with the eldest being in his mid-80s.


In addition to the very information and detailed liner notes, there are some great photographs of musicians and dancers in portrait and performance forms.  The sounds have a lot of influence from Persia and the Shia Ismaili Muslims who live there take a lot of their vocal stylings and lyrical content from spiritual and devotional traditions dating back centuries to poets like Rumi, Hafiz and others.

The isolation of the peoples of the region are reflected in these remarkable recordings which were made in 1991 and 1992 just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the also show the fascinating meeting point of societies from Central Asia in a part of the world too few of us (this blogger included) in America know enough (if anything) about.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

FAX Compilation 1

My introduction to the remarkable electronic sound world of Pete Namlook (real name Peter Kuhlmann—check the surname backwards) came through his many collaborations with one of my favorite musicians, Bill Laswell, in the multi-volume Psychonavigation and Outland series of recordings for Namlook's FAX label.  I have most of the entries in both series and have enjoyed them immensely.

It is always admirable when a musician working in a very uncommercial environment can create their own sustainable label and the FAX label is a good example of this.  Until his untimely death in 2012, just before his 52nd birthday, the prolific German artist released a major catalog of his own recordings and of many others through the label.


This compilation is one of several released by FAX over the years and appeared in 1994.  In addition to Namlook's work under the nom de plumes of The Putney, Air and 4Voice, there are collaborations with Richie Hawtin and Tetsu Inoue and contributions from Inoue, Atom Heart, longtime Laswell collaborator Robert Musso, and others.

This two-disc set is filled with excellent ambient pieces and works particularly well with headphones and concentrated attention.  This is also the easiest to find of the several FAX compilations, because it had outside distribution, so, for those who like ambient electronics (and this was the heyday of it), the album is well worth seeking out.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Anthony Braxton Live

With only fourteen posts last year and none so far this year, due mainly to less available time, the format here is switching to fewer words, but still promoting and highlighting inspiring music that others may enjoy.  So, we'll see how this goes.

This live recording from a 1970s stint on Bluebird Records, an imprint of the major Arista label, and produced by Michael Cuscuna with Steve Backer as executive producer, is a phenomenal effort.

It hightlights some of Braxton's finest early compositions, including combinations (Braxton often does this--mingles elements of compositions) of numbers 6, 23 and 40, performed by his quartet at the Montreux Jazz Festival in July 1975 and at the Berlin Jazz Days festival in September 1976.  The tour de force rhythm section at both concerts are the formidable Dave Holland on bass and Barry Altschul on drums.  Trumpeter Kenny Wheeler is the other horn player at Montreux with trombonist George Lewis at Berlin.  Braxton wields his alto, as well as soprano, clarinet and contrabass clarinet at both shows and the flute at the latter.


As Cuscuna observed in his brief liners, Braxton, Holland and Altschul were part of the brilliant, though short-lived group Circle, led by Chick Corea, and then Wheeler joined with the other three for some recordings in 1971 and future dates over the following years.  Montreux was a highlight of the band before it disbanded because, Cuscuna says, Braxton was looking for a change.

For his amazing Creative Orchestra Music from 1976, Braxton brought in Lewis and resulting performances constituted, for Cuscuna, pure magic including the last piece on this disc, which the producer reckoned  as "one of the pinnacles of collective jazz playing."

This disc is full of fantastic ensemble and solo work, as well as some of Braxton's most interesting compositions.  He's had a long career filled with many highlights, but these live performances are among the greatest this admirer has heard.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Krzysztof Penderecki: Orchestral Works, Volume 1

This Naxos recording of four orchestral works by Penderecki by the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit, includes the dense, dramatic and dynamic Symphony Number 3, composed between 1988 and 1995 and which represents something of a balance between the avant-garde work Penderecki became noted for in the early 1960s and more traditional approaches after he found his earlier fixatons "more destructive than constructive."

To this amateur, the balance is struck quite well.  There is a lot going on sonically, with soaring brass and strings accompanied by a variety of propulsive percussion, especially in the second movement, while the third movement's adagio has a very pretty and lyrical melody.  These were composed at the end of the seven-year gestation of the piece, whereas the final two movements were the earliest, including a foreboding fourth movement passacaglia that has a powerful and dramatic apogee and a finale that blends darkness with power in a very gripping fashion.

Then, there's the best-known and somewhat infamous piece, coming at the peak of Penderecki's early avant-garde period in 1960.  The "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 Strings" is a devastating sonic experience, in which the use of all those stringed instruments are taken to a aural extreme in segements of a piece spanning about 9 minutes. 

The composer stated that, in a conceptual form, it was to be called 8'37" in direct reference to John Cage's notorious 4'33", but that, once it was recorded, he decided that its emotional power led him to change the title as a dedication to those who died in the atomic blast let forth by the United States in August 1945.


While I've had this disc for some time, it was more than interesting to watch David Lynch's highly experimental and visually starting eighth episode of the Twin Peaks return just a couple of months ago and, during an extended sequence that dealt with the atomic bomb and its setting off the evil form that became the underpinning for the series, there was "Threnody" providing a stunning soundtrack to the incredible scenes unfolding on screen.  Coincidentally, at about the same time, I was reading a couple of books dealing with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the confluence was remarkable.

As experimental and mind-blowing is "Flourescences," which was composed a year after Threnody.  Utilizing a full orchestra, but also a variety of additional sound sources, inlcuding an alarm siren, and wood, tin and glass, cowbells, a typewriter and gongs, Penderecki unleashed an adventure into sound that moves beyond music and the composer once said about it, "all I'm interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition."  It is a fascinating excursion into unusual combinations of instrumentation and the presentation of sound that seems, to this untrained listener, evocative of a soundtrack.  This is because, though the piece doesn't have defined movements, it does seem to have distinct and set-apart elements.

Finally, there is "De Natura Sonoris II" from the early 1970s, a short piece that is more restrained than its provocative predecessors.  There are some unusual instruments here, as well, including a piston flute and musical saw, with violas and plenty of brass standing out.  There is a long climax followed by a calm ending and the effect is striking.

A second volume of the orchestral works of Penderecki is certainly in the offing for a future post here and as a continuation of the absorbing, if often difficult, music of this always-interesting composer.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Joseph Spence: The Complete Folkways Recordings, 1958

The liner notes description by Samuel Charters, who recorded this music while in search of traditional folk music in the Bahamas in 1958, tells it all.  He and a colleague were on the sparsely-populated island of Andros, which had fewer than 900 residents, and he continued:
We went out one day about noon  . . . some men were working on the foundation of a new house, and as we came close to them we could hear guitar music.  It was some of the most exuberant, spontaneous, and uninhibited guitar playing we had ever heard, but all we could see was a man in a faded short and rumpled khaki trousers sitting on a pile of bricks.  He had a large acoustic guitar in his lap.  I wsa so sure two guitarists were playing that I went along the path to look on the other side of the wall to see where the other musician was sitting.  I had just met Joseph Spence.
Charters went on to note that
his playing was stunning.  He was playing simple popular melodies and using them as the basis for extended rhythmic and melodic variations.  He often seemed to be improvising in the bass, the middle strings and the treble at the same time.  Sometimes a variation would strike the men [working on the house] and Spence himself as so exciting that he would simply stop playing and join thyem in the shouts of excitement,
The unheralded guitarist then walked over to the house where Charters and his future wife Ann Danberg were staying and was followed by quite a crowd.  Unable to squeeze everyone into the small dwelling, Charters decided to do "the recording on the porch."  He then reeled off enough material for an album and a half, combined into one disc here, for the Folkways label, now Smithsonian Folkways.


After Spence "played as much as he wanted we paid him the little money we had" and then the musician headed off for animated games of Bahamian checkers until his friends finished their construction work.

Charters talked about attempts to get Spence more attention during the "new folk" scene in New York, but there were other musicians who were more popular and one visit in which the Bahamian guitarist was accompanied by religious family members led to a much tempered sound when he played.

These recordings are remarkable in that a guitarist with such stunning command of his instrument and with the inventiveness and creativity of a master improviser was found by happenstance.  Spence accompanied himself with a steady tapping of a foot to keep the rhythm rock solid and growled lyrics and hummed to keep in place with the song.   But, it's those variations and his use of all the strings of his instrument that make these recordings so amazing.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Arcana: The Last Wave

Bill Laswell has made it one of his stocks-in-trade to bring together musicians who have not or would not likely be found together in the studio or on stage and give them the leeway to do their thing.  While such experiments may not always be successful, they are almost always interesting.

After the death of the staggering guitarist Sonny Sharrock put an end of the pounding, uber-loud quarter Last Exit, which intermittently performed from 1986 to the early 1990s, Laswell put together the Arcana project, centered around the remarkable drummer Tony Williams and the idiosyncratic guitarist Derek Bailey with Laswell, as always, keeping the bottom line with his bass consistent and accommodating to the other instrumentalists.

In April 1995, Williams, Bailey and Laswell entered the bassist's Greenpoint Studio in Brooklyn and recorded The Last Wave, a churning, boiling, blasting and freely chaotic collection of improvisations that, when it works, is astounding.



This is especially true in the opening "Broken Circle," in which Bailey wails away with his angular approach to the electric guitar, while Williams pounds away with hard washes of cymbals and aggressive snare attacks.  Laswell wisely plays it cool and doesn't try to match the power and propulsion provided by his bandmates.

"Cold Blast" starts out slow and atmospheric, with Williams using his cymbals as a wash of sound, Bailey picks out bits of discordant notes and Laswell lays out undertones of bass.  When Williams starts hitting paired notes and occasional long fills, which is common on this recording, on his snare and Laswell plays with heavy rhythms on his eight-string bass, Bailey is all over the place coaxing strange and wonderful sounds from his axe.  About 4:45 in the piece really comes together with Williams hitting his stride with great fill and cymbal work to correspond with Bailey's always restless explorations and Laswell holds down the bottom end admirably.



The lengthiest track is "Pearls and Transformation" with Bailey's jagged and trebly riffs underlaid by Williams' polyrhytmic approach that is familiar to those who've heard the drummer's music from Miles Davis to Lifetime and elsewhere.  Again, Laswell keeps his bass playing simple and in control to allow the others to riff accordingly.  The piece goes quiet and atmospheric about 2 1/2 minutes in and again at about 6  and then 11 minutes and then goes into some interesting exploratory group improvising that might sound like aimless noodling, but, to this hearer, is a cohesive journey taken by three musicians that do listen to each other even while pushing and prodding to move in several directions during the long piece.

Produced by Laswell with assistance from longtime collaborator John Zorn and his Japanese partner in the Tzadik label, Kazunori Sugiyama and released on the Japanese DIW/Disk Union label, the recording, by Laswell stalwarts Robert Musso as engineer and Layng Martine assisting, is clear and crystalline and makes the most of cleanly distinguishing the instruments.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Electric Masada: At the Mountains of Madness

After putting on an excellent performance as part of John Zorn's 50th birthday celebration in 2003, and their set released as volume 4 of the many recordings emanating from that lengthy series of concerts at Zorn's Tonic club in New York, Electric Masada embarked on a European tour.

Clearly Zorn was buoyed by the octet's telepathic interplay and collective and individual power when he launched the tour and this 2-disc set capturing performances in Moscow and in Slovenia reveal a band that was louder, more intense and transformative in terms of taking familiar Masada tunes into another sonic realm.


Key to the expansion of volume, power and intensity is the use of two drummers, Masada stalwart Joey Baron, who never fails to impress and amaze, and Kenny Wollesen, another remarkable talent, and the great percussionist Cyro Baptista.  Trevor Dunn is left to anchor the bottom with his stellar bass playing.

Keyboardist Jamie Saft is another integral component to the ensemble, providing both phenomenal soloing and propulsive accompaniment and then is augmented with the electronic touches of Ikue Mori.

When it comes to Marc Ribot, it's hard to not overdo the superlatives.  It isn't just that he is a remarkable soloist in terms of speed, precision and power, but that his creativity on the frets is so marked.  Throughout the recording, his playing is simply amazing.



This, of course, applies to Zorn, who regularly astounds with his alto sax work, but he seems particular energized, motivated, and pushed by his top-notch colleagues throughout these performances.

It is telling that several of the pieces rendered from the Masada book are given extended treatments, with even the shortest tune going 5 and 1/2 minutes.  Six of the fifteen pieces are 15 minutes or longer, giving ample opportunity for everyone to showcase their talents at length during the course of the recording.


Extra kudos have to go out to Heung-Heung Chin, who has created remarkable cover art for Zorn's Tzadik projects over the years, but this one is especially interesting and eye-catching with the individual art works and the font used for the titles.

To this listener, it isn't even about the individual tunes, but about the individual and collective performances that make this such a tremendous album.  At the Mountains of Madness is testament to what makes Masada one of the great jazz ensembles ever and certainly one of the top groups of the last quarter century or so.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphonies Nos 1-20

A recent reading of a biography of the remarkable composer Charles Ives by the equally distinctive composer Henry Cowell and his wife Sidney, included some interesting perspectives by Ives about the "pretty music" made by composers of bygone eras.  This also came out in a reading several years ago of Harry Partch's Genesis of a Music.  In both cases, highly idiosyncratic composers seeking to exercise their creativity in breaking molds and expanding ideas outside traditional areas of melody, harmony and time offered pointed criticisms of "pretty music."

For this listener, music is usually about mood.  In other words, what do we feel like listening to today based on a number of factors?  Where Ives, Partch and many others felt the need to make a clean break, at least theoretically, from their precursors, there may be times for this blogger in which their music, say, Ives' "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" or Partch's "The Bewitched" sounds really appealing.

Then again, there are those times when "pretty music" is best suited for a certain frame of mind.  As often as we may have heard Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and other purveyors of "pretty music," those composers and their works just happen to fit a mood at a given time.


The reasons are not entirely clear from a technical standpoint to this amateur, but the music of Franz Joseph Haydn is particularly appealing a great deal of the time. It stands to reason that his brilliance in perenially writing beautiful, flowing, lilting melodies with a steady and confident handling of harmony in a consistent and reliable sense of time make his music so attractive that it is easy to go back regularly to indulge in the richness and emotionally uplifting dynamics of his work.

An excellent presentation of the master's 104 symphonies is through the Esterhazy recordings by the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra led by conductor Adam Fischer on Nimbus Records.  The orchestra was built to play the composer's music with a conductor and performers deeply committed to performing these works with the passion and feel that shines through on these recordings.

The only reason that this initial set of the first numbered symphonies, which are not necessarily those in order of actual composition, though they are all early (meaning around 1760), is the subject of this post, rather than some other set in the series, is that, eventually, the whole run will be featured.

Basically, for this admirer, the work of Haydn is full of "pretty music" that will be uplifting at just about any time. As much as more atonal and dissonant work has interest, given the mood at the moment, it's hard to go wrong by listening to Haydn's symphonies at any time, especially when they are as well performed as they are by the orchestra on these recordings.