Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Masada: Live in Sevilla

John Zorn has often been called an enfant terrible of the New York downtown music scene.  Wildly unpredictable, ambitious, provocative, Zorn has made records that mix cartoon soundtracks, classical, hardcore punk, jazz and other sounds, often within the same 27-second track.  He is truly uncategorizable, which is one of his greatest attributes.

Occasionally, however, he takes on a project that makes him . . . well, nearly accessible.  This might be disappointing to some people who enjoy his more experimental works, but when it came to Masada, the jazz quartet that existed for about fifteen or so years, he and his cohorts created one of great ensembles of that form of music to be found anywhere in recent decades.  In this remarkable quarter, Zorn also gets to show that he is a truly great alto sax player, above and beyond the notoriety he receives for his experimentalism (and upper register pyrotechnics.)

Zorn has always professed openly his admiration for the great Ornette Coleman and especially his amazing quartets of the late 1950s and early 1960s and demonstrated this with his Spy vs. Spy recording of Coleman tunes done in speed-metal-like tempos!  Consequently, the alto sax player formed Masada with that structure, including Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass, and drummer Joey Baron.

As with the classic Coleman quartets, the interplay between the frontline alto sax and trumpet get plenty of attention, as it should.  To hear Zorn and Douglas harmonize and then play off each other's inventive and stunning lines is a wonder to behold.  However, ears should also be focused, as with the Coleman rhythm section of bassist Charlie Haden and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, on Masada's remarkable pairing of Cohen and Baron, who keep the propulsion going at the highest levels during the faster tunes, but also show great sensitivity and support on the ballads and slower pieces.

What makes Masada further intriguing is the concept of melding that Coleman-inspired format with the emphasis of Jewish folk melodies but with an emphasis on what Zorn calls "radical Jewish culture" where he explores the traditions of his heritage infused with the modernism that has been his forte.  Because of the stellar improvisational skills of the band, the many live albums can sound as fresh and distinctive as the versions from the studio recordings and, as a truly awesome outfit in concert, Masada is likely at its best on these live recordings.

Probably, Live in Sevilla, recorded in that venerable Spanish city in 2000 and released on Zorn's label Tzadik with typically beautiful packaging, is the most impressive from the standpoint of sound quality.  The clarity, crispness and separation are tremendous and each instrument can be heard with phenomenal richness.  As noted above, the telepathy between the four members is a wonder, especially with Cohen and Baron being as "front line" as a rhythm section can be, and then Zorn and Douglas are a formidable improvisatory duo whose work complements and balances one another.  Indeed, Masada is a truly balanced ensemble, as remarkable for the slower-tempo and balladic pieces as the faster, powerful and propulsive workouts.

It is also intriguing to hear Zorn's Klezmer-inspired melodies as launching pads for these excursions into group interplay and otherwordly soloing.  It is hard to imagine that anything could be done to further expand the Masada sound, and Zorn ended the jazz ensemble's fantastic run a few years back, but there are other ensembles, including Electric Masada, the Masada String Trio and the awesome Bar Kokhba Sextet, that bring the songbook into different formulations and give new dimensions that show that Zorn has created a project that will almost certainly stand as his greatest achievement.

Masada: Live in Sevilla (Tzadik, 2000)

1.  Ne'eman  12:36
2.  Katzatz  4:56
3.  Hadasha  10:53
4.  Beeroth  7:06
5.  Yoreh  9:49
6.  Hazor  6:27
7.  Nashon  10:08
8.  Lakom  5:06
9.  Bith Aneth  9:33

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Praxis: Tennessee 2004

Bill Laswell has accomplished many amazing things as a bassist, producer and impresario.  One of his most impressive attributes is working with some of the planet's greatest musicians and providing them, rather than himself, a spotlight.  This list includes Herbie Hancock, Sonny Sharrock, the Gnawa musicians of Morocco, Zakir Hussain, Simon Shaheen, Pharoah Sanders, Tony Williams, John Zorn, Peter Brötzmann and many others.

This post, however, concerns the project called Praxis, which actually started in the 1980s as an early effort in electronics by Laswell alone, but morphed into a group of musicians mashing up sounds from rock, dub, metal, funk and other areas into an invigorating series of recordings that have shifted greatly in personnel and instrumental emphasis (there is the occasional vocal on some of the records.)

The first album from 1992, Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis), was a brilliant first volley with drummer Brain (Primus), keyboard legend Bernie Worrell and bassist Bootsy Collins (from Parliament-Funkadelic, turntablist Af Next Man Flip (Jungle Brothers) and, most notably, guitarist Buckethead, whose frozen white mask and fried chicken bucket hat gave him a notoriety and mystery, but whose incredible speed and technique, particularly his shredding style, in playing the guitar are a wonder to behold (behear?)

As great as the musicians are generally and the lineups dramatically alter from record to record, the focus is usually on Buckethead, who is from the Bay Area and was in a band called the Deli Creeps before he hooked up with Laswell.  A stint with Guns 'N Roses long after the classic early 90s records of that band may be his best-known gig, but he really has had some incredible highlights in the Praxis catalog.

There is probably no better showcase for his talents, though, than this live recording from the Bonnaroo Festival in the state and the year that comprise the title of this album released on ROIR (Reach Out International Records), which has been best known for its reggae and dub catalog.  The festival's third run in 2004 featured Bob Dylan, Wilco, Patti Smith, Los Lobos, Steve Winwood, The Dead, My Morning Jacket, Kings of Leon, Burning Spear, Taj Mahal, David Byrne and lots of other great acts.

Praxis took the stage as a quartet with Laswell, Brain, Buckethead and Worrell in one of the tents in the early morning hours of the second of three days punctuated by massive rain torrents and ran through an eleven-song set that featured some moody experimental ambient pieces, a drum solo for Brain titled "Broken/Fractal," a feature piece in "Chopper" for Laswell, and a gutsy cover of Jimi Hendrix' "Machine Gun.  A few of the highlights for YHB, though, are tracks three and four, "Night of the Slunk," and "Guitar Virus," because they give Buckethead the platform for the epitome of his astounding playing, the opening piece; "Vertebrae" because it shows a tight band moving on a fantastic bass line from Laswell, steady rhythms from Brain, nice shadings from Worrell and inventive, but restrained playing from Buckethead; and the atmospheric "Optic."

Tennessee 2004 was not released until three years after its creation, but it is an excellent vehicle for one of the most underappreciated improvisatory bands out there and special credit should be given to Oz Fritz for his remarkable recording of this festival performance and the engineering by long-time Laswell cohort Robert Mussi and his assistant James Dellatacoma.  This is easily one of the best-produced live albums YHB has come across.

In 2007, Praxis recorded one more album, Profanation (Preparation for a Coming Darkness), which was released in Japan the following year, but didn't get an American distribution until Laswell's new M.O.D. Technologies issued it last year, after which the bassist pulled the plug on the project. 

But, it was a great ride if it is over and other recordings by this great band will be focused here later.

Praxis:  Tennessee 2004 (ROIR, 2007)

1.  Vertebrae
2.  Spun
3.  Night of the Slunk
4.  Guitar Virus
5.  Machine Gun
6.  Haunted
7.  Broken/Fractal
8.  Bent Light
9.  Chopper
10. Optic
11. Magus

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fryderyk Chopin: Preludes, Barcarolle, Bolero

Few other "classical" musicians or composers are so identfied with a single instrument as Fryderyk Chopin is with the piano.  Of the 230 some works that survive from his hand, all involve the piano and most are solely for this most expressive of instruments.  Other than perhaps his good friend Franz Liszt, Chopin was also regarded as the ultimate virtuoso as a performer, though his light touch on the keyboard made him more a sensation at salons and smaller gatherings than in the concert hall, unlike the powerful and dramatic Liszt.

Chopin's father was a Frenchman who moved to Poland in his teens and was a clerk and then a private teacher before achieving some renown as an instructor in French at the Warsaw Lyceum.  Nicolas Chopin played the flute and violin and his Polish wife, Justyna Krzyzanowska, played and taught piano.  Born near Warsaw in 1810, their only son became a child prodigy, composing two polonaises (a Polish dance form done slowly in three-quarter time) at age seven that were highly regarded.  His fame in Warsaw lasted until he was 20 and set out for Vienna, planning to go to Italy.

When Chopin was in Austria, however, a revolt erupted in his homeland, which was controlled by the Russian Empire, led by Polish nationalist military figures.  The uprising was quashed and Chopin who went to Paris shortly afterward never saw Poland again.  As noted above, the pianist performed mostly in intimate settings and a concert career was also inhibited by poor health, stemming from what was likely pulmonary tuberculosis.  In addition to his growing fame as a musician and composer, Chopin became known for his decade-long love affair with the famed French writer George Sand (Amandine Dupin).

By the time his relationship with Sand ended in 1847, Chopin's health had deteriorated greatly and the following year, following the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848 in Paris, the musician departed for a tour of the British Isles.  Unable to teach because of his failing condition and his writing limited, Chopin's finances were extremely precarious.  In November he was back in Paris and lived only eleven months more, dying on 17 October 1849.  Three thousand people attended his funeral, at which Liszt played organ, and his remains were interred at Pére Lachaise Cemetery.

Chopin had an enormous influence on major pianists of the 19th century, like Liszt, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and beyond.  His Minute (as in small) Waltz, composed in 1847, is likely his most famous work, but this Naxos label release of the Preludes and other pieces is an extraordinary journey through a variety of exciting presentations of solo piano, expertly performed by Idil Biret, who has made wonderful recordings of Chopin's works for the label.

While one of the Preludes runs nearly six minutes, most are between forty second and two-and-a-half minutes, but there is such an amazing variety of tempos (including the ample use of rubato in which the tempo is suddenly quickened or slowed), melodies and coloration that provde for a wide range of emotional content.  One of these, in particular, stands out for this blogger.  The seventeenth prelude made such an impression that it became the wedding march for YHB in 1997 and evokes many great memories of that day, including just a few moments ago when it played on the computer's disc drive.

A nice feature to this Naxos recording is not just the good biographical summary, but Ms. Biret's essay on "Interpreting Chopin" is a very useful guide to hearing his music and one of her best commentaries is the problematic assignation of the term "Romantic" to pianists as disparate in style and technique as Chopin and Liszt (or Schumann.)  In particular, Ms. Biret highlights the natural and simple approach that Chopin exemplified, noting that "playing his music on the powerful modern pianos [which were really developed fully by 1900 or so] and in large concer halls is often problematic."  As she expresses it, "it is therefore better to somewhat reduce sonority without sacrificing the quality of the sound."  In other words, the clarity and purity should not be lost in flourishes and aggressive clusters of chords and other structural elements that detract from the former aspects.

Fryderyk Chopin:  Preludes, Bacarolle, Bolero (Naxos, 1992)

Preludes 1-24
Prelude in A Flat Major
Prelude, Op. 45
Bourrée I and II
Feuille d'Album

Total Time: 71'30"

Monday, July 9, 2012

Wu Man: Chinese Music for the Pipa

Wu Man, born in 1963 in Hangzhou in southern China, is a master of the pipa, a pear-shaped lute, with four strings, twenty-six frets and six ledges serving as stops, that is plucked, in what is known as the Pudong school of performing on this classical Chinese instrument.  The Pudong tradition dates to the 1700s and from an area within Shanghai and Wu Man received her instruction from such masters at Lin Shicheng (1922-2006).  She studied with Lin at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and was the first person to receive a master's degree in pipa studies and performance.  In 1989 she was awarded the first prize at the National Academic Competition for Chinese Instruments. 

The following year she went to the United States to study English and remained a resident.  She has had many honors, won a great number of awards and prizes and has played with an impressive and eclectic list of performers and ensembles, including the Kronos Quartet, Henry Threadgill (both featured here), Philip Glass, and Yo-Yo Ma's acclaimed Silk Road Project.

Wu Man's first recording was issued by the Nimbus label, which has issued many excellent world music and classical albums, in 1993 and is called Chinese Music for the Pipa.  The seven tracks include five traditional pieces and two modern ones (one composed in 1929 and the other just two years before the recording. 

Pieces reflect certain modes of performance, such as martial and civil or combinations of the two.  This latter is endemic to the final and most modern piece, Dian (The Points) which displays Wu Man's astonishing technique and skill, while also evoking the great emotion, especially the kuyin (or weeping tones) style.  There are also significant variations in tempo, from the faster folk-infused Denghue jiaohui that opens the album to the reflective Chen Sui, the fourth piece.

The liner notes by the artist and Stephen Jones give excellent information on the instrument and how it is played, the use of scores for the pipa, and summaries of the seven works on the album.  Three years after this debut, Wu Man worked with an ensemble on a second Nimbus release, Chinese Traditional and Contemporary Music, which further explored her interest in exploring and presenting the classical music of her country with modern expressions based on earlier styles and forms and this album will be featured here someday.

Wu Man: Chinese Music for the Pipa (Nimbus Records, 1993)

1.  Dengyue jiaohui (Lanterns and moon competing in brilliance)  5:21
2.  Wulin yiyun (Ancient melodies of Wulin)  14:17
3.  Bawang xie jia (The tyrant removes his armor)  10:27
4.  Chen Sui (Chen and Sui dynasties)  12:12
5.  Xu lai (Sounds of nature)  6:28
6.  Yue'er gao (The moon on high)  13:31
7.  Dian (The Points)  8:56

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Henry Threadgill: Too Much Sugar for a Dime

It was nearly twenty years ago, 1993, and most people were still buying their music through the "record store," a quaint concept now.  I walked into a Pasadena shop and was immediately struck by the jazz album playing on the store's system.  There was an alto sax player of great skill, and electric guitarists and a drummer, all familiar to a significant degree, but there was also tubas, and African-sounding percussion and a strange, ethereal, otherworldly female vocalist, and some men singing what sounded like Portuguese.

When I walked up to the counter and asked what the record was, I was told it was Henry Threadgill, a name I had never heard before and that it was his new recording, Too Much Sugar for a Dime.  Without hesitating, I inquired as to whether there were copies of the album for sale and the reply was that the only one was that being played, but that I could have it for $10.  Sold!

Looking over the case and the cover art, there was the name of the label, Axiom and of co-producer and label founder Bill Laswell.  As I was three years in to a method of buying several albums at a time in the general genres of rock, jazz, hip hop, classical, world, and reggae, I knew both quite well from the purchase of several of the label's world music recordings, as well as some of its other releases, like the fantastic 1991 Sonny Sharrock album, Ask the Ages, featured here recently.  I soon learned that Threadgill came from the ferment of Chicago's 1960s jazz scene with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which included Richard Muhal Abrams, Anthony Braxton (also to be featured here quite soon), and the Art Ensemble of Chicago (ditto.)

Threadgill's style of composing is utterly distinctive and he has always favored instrumentation that is unusual harmonically, as well as sonically.  His group at the time, Very Very Circus, featured a French horn player, two electric guitarists, a drummer and two tuba players, but no bassist.  On two more orchestral pieces, "In Touch" and "Better Wrapped/Better Unrapped," there was an additional tuba, another drummer, three violinists (one of whom played the oud, this being the Simon Shaheen, featured here with his remarkable Taqasim duet with Ali Jihad Racy not long ago, and another being the underappreciated Leroy Jenkins), Brazilian percussionists (who also do their singing on the latter), and, on the former, two vocalists, one singing lyrics and the other vocalizing ethereally. 

But, it was the opening track, "Little Pocket Size Demons," that I'd been blown away by when I walked into that record store and is still a stunning piece, with Threadgill's agile, jagged soloing complemented by the sonic fireworks of Masujaa and Brandon Ross on electric guitarists.  The great drummer Gene Lake holds the beat down excellently throughout the record.  Ross also deserves notice for his acoustic guitar work on "Too Much Sugar," by far the briefest of the six pieces on this very eclectic, off-beat, but entrancing album. 

Since this amazing and welcome discovery, I've picked up several more of these great composer's albums and have enjoyed them all, but Too Much Sugar for a Dime is still the favorite.  As Threadgill states in his abstract poetic liner notes:

These great musicians working
together so, was some kind of Shangri-la
or better, on this side.
     just wonderful — to get the
expected and unexpected.
     Very very
     . . . Very (Sigh)  Now it's just pigeon

Though I'm not sure what that last phrase means.

Henry Threadgill:  Too Much Sugar for a Dime (Axiom Records, 1993)

1.  Little Pocket Size Demons  10:49
2.  In Touch  8:49
3.  Paper Toilet  5:39
4.  Better Wrapped/Better Unrapped  13:05
5.  Too Much Sugar  2:58
6.  Try Some Ammonia  12:23

Friday, July 6, 2012

Richard H. Kirk: Virtual State

Kirk, a founder and main sound manipulator for the industrial/electro/techno/whatever British group, Cabaret Voltaire, has had a phenomenally active solo career, though, rather modestly, when asked how he could produce so many albums, he merely replied that the technology of computers, processors, synthsizers, and so on made it easier.

If working with electronics isn't "playing" music (though the rock musicians could easily look down on the techno guys, and the jazz people could look down on the rock dudes, and the classical performers could look down on the jazzbos, ad infinitum), there is certainly a skill involved in laying down compelling tracks of samples, keyboard riffs, drum machine rhythms, and et cetera to make a notable piece of electronic music. 

Does proficiency trump ideas? Is a studio musician as "artistically important" as someone who comes up with a great melody and/or lyric?  Is a gimmick as good as a well-structured and performed song?  Or can we apply one sensible definition of art--it's what the viewer/listener believes it is?

In any case, Kirk made his first solo record, Disposable Half-Truths for Throbbing Gristle's Industrial Records label back in 1980, and followed that with several more solo records and one collaboration with vocalist Peter Hope during the ensuing decade.

By the time Cabaret Voltaire went on what appeared to be a permanent hiatus in 1994, however, Kirk had found an enormous wellspring of inspiration in the burgeoning techno/electronica/whatever scene(s) that burst forth in the later 1980s and early 1990s, spearheaded by his excellent work under the Sandoz (read: lysergic acid scientist) moniker.  With collaborator DJ Parrot, he worked on the Sweet Exorcist (read: classic Curtis Mayfield album of the early Seventies) project that issued the first full-length recording on the hometown Sheffield label, Warp, which became legendary in the electronic world.  This album also had American distribution via the eminent Chicago label Wax Trax! and the New York label TVT.

It is hard to imagine anything that Kirk has ever done, with all of his recording under innumerable aliases, that is better than 1994's "Virtual State."  From the ambient opener "November X Ray Mexico" which takes a military pilot's transmissions and leads it into an unintentional jeremiad to "fight the radio," to the sleek African percussion-driven funk of "Come," to the cooled out head trip of "The Feeling (Of Warmth and Beauty)," to the soothing and dreamlike closer, "Lagoon West," this is a record that, for those attuned to electronic music, is well-sequenced, clearly produced, and highly evocative in its use of found sound, basic synthesized instrumentation, bleeps and blurps, and the odd disembodied voice.  Plus, the artwork by the remarkable Designers Republic, championed by Cabaret Voltaire and others, is perfectly complementary to the sounds adduced by the record.

For a man with enough humility, candor and self-confidence to declare that he is not a musician but can come up with something so truly musical and enticing, Virtual State may be the best introduction to a vast catalogue that runs the gamut of electronica/techno/whatever.  Many more RHK recordings will be featured on this site and this album marks a high point among many in a 30+ year career.  It is also more commonly available than virtually (!) any other Kirk album.

Richard H. Kirk:  Virtual State (Warp, 1994)

1.  November X Ray Mexico
2.  Frequency Band
3.  Come
4.  Freezone
5.  Clandestine Transmission
6.  The Feeling (Of Warmth and Beauty)
7.  Velodrome
8.  Soul Catcher
9.  World War Three
10.  Lagoon West

Monday, July 2, 2012

Steve Reich: Early Works

Here is another entry in the continuing series of albums the calls into question how music is defined.  Steve Reich is considered one of the foremost practitioners of "minimalism" in classical music, though the extremely modern sense of his work seems counter to any notion of "classical." The Nonesuch album, Early Works, released in 1987 explores Reich's novel ideas of composition and instrumentation.

At any rate, in January 1965, Reich recorded a street Pentecostal preacher who styled himself "Brother Walter" pontificating at San Francisco's Union Square.  Reich then worked at home on what became "It's Gonna Rain," developing tape loops on Walter's voice and stumbled upon the proces of having a pair of identical loops move out of phase in a very gradual way.  Then, the two voices are edited to four and the pairs of voices are manipulated to move out of phase.  Then, the four voices become eight and, in the liners, Reich described this as "a kind of controlled chaos," though those not inclined to this type of "music," might find it all chaotic!  Still, the composer suggests that this "may be appropriate to the subject matter—the end of the world," which is an interesting way to approach the piece.

A follow-up piece of sorts is "Come Out," which was created in 1966 and has a very timely context.  As explained by Reich, the piece was for a New York City benefit to assist in the retrial of six young men arrested for murder during civil unrest in Harlem a couple of years before.  The voice in the piece was that of one of the six, Daniel Hamm, describing a pummeling he received from police at the station and refers to where he opened a bruise on his leg so it would bleed and he could be taken to a hospital and away from the terror at the precinct station.  "Come Out" consists of one loop on two channels, starting in unison and then going out of phase as a reverberation arises.  Subsequently, there are two, four and, again, eight voices.

Reich noted that his technique in these two works, referred to as "vocal music," shows "the original emotional power that speech has while intensifying its melody and meaning through repetition and rhythm."

Having completed these two landmark pieces, Reich turned to instrumental music with 1967's "Piano Phase," in which phase shifting was employed with a musical notation form that Reich devised with "a small number of repeating patterns which may be learned and memorized in a few minutes."  Two pianists play together repeating the same pattern in unison, until one remains in the same tempo while the others increases theirs to one beat ahead.  The work continues with the playing in unison and then back to the "phasing process" described above.   What Reich identifies as essential in this is a careful listening "in order to hear if you've moved one beat ahead, or moved two by mistake, or instead drifted back to where you started."  For the two musicians to perform the piece well involves, not improvised elements, but a "psychology of performance" in a complete sense immersion in the sound.

The last track is "Clapping Music" from 1971, developed when Reich and an ensemble traveled in Europe.  Although they had an enormous amount of instruments and equipment, the composer wanted "to create a piece of music that would need no instruments beyond the human body."  In a variation of phase shifting, Reich organized the piece so that one performer kept a fixed rhythm, while another moved quickly from unison to a beat ahead and then back to unison and repeating these patterns.  With concentration, it can be discerned that both performers are playing identical patterns, but starting differently.

While "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out" are the original 1960s recordings, the other two pieces were recorded in 1986 and 1987 for the album: Reich teaming with Russ Hartenberger for "Clapping Music" and the keyboard duo "Double Edge" of Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann performing "Piano Phase."

If the listener accepts the idea the music is organized sound, which this blog views as the base definition, then the use of the spoken voice and the clapping of hands, not traditionally seen as instruments, as well as a use of the piano in a non-traditional fashion, are musical.  This is especially seen rhythmically, but also in a variation of what constitutes melody.  In the tumult and ferment of the Sixties, these early pieces of Reich's are landmarks, though certainly not for those who are drawn towards more orthodox approaches towards music and composition.

Steve Reich:  Early Works (Nonesuch, 1987)

1.  Come Out  12:54
2.  Piano Phase  20:26
3.  Clapping Music  4:39
4.  It's Gonna Rain  17:31