Sunday, September 30, 2012

Anton Bruckner: Symphony #7

Somehow, a few years back, YHB became a fan of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), a composer whose long, complex and dynamic symphonies are in a league with those of Wagner and Mahler, though the works of those two are far better known.

Yet, Bruckner is fascinating, because he reached back into the past to evoke the melodic phrasing of Beethoven, adapted the current work of his idol, Wagner, in harmonic sophistication, and pointed the way to the future with unusual modulation and unexpected dissonance.  This made the composer something of a traditionalist and a groundbreaker simultaneously.

Bruckner was born in a small town in northern Austria, where his father was a schoolteacher and his first music teacher.  He became known as an excellent organist and developed his skills further at a monastery at St. Florian nearby.  Later, he trained to be a teacher and worked as an assistant, though he had a terrible time in the field, thanks to the humiliation he suffered at the hands of his boss.  His sense of inferiority, perhaps inborn, was certainly enhanced during those years.   Indeed, his symphonies were marked by continual revisions, so that the term the "Bruckner problem" was coined to deal with the issue of the various editions of the composer's works.

The composer did find a better teaching position at St. Florian and, by the mid-1840s, was also beginning to compose music that showed his future direction in life, though he was a notoriously late bloomer.  He was appointed organist at St. Florian in his late twenties and continued teaching until his early thirties.  He did not write his first major work until he was forty and success and attention eluded him until he was well into his sixties.  Strangely, though he continued to be recognized as a virtuoso in organ performance, he never wrote any works for the instrument.

After become a music teacher at the Vienna Conservatory in 1868 and then at the University of Vienna seven years later.  A son of the country at heart, the unsophisticated, religiously devout, insecure and simple Bruckner struggled to find acceptance in the wordly capital of his country.  A thorough disciple of Wagner in an era in which advocates of the latter battled with supporters of Johannes Brahms regarding which "school" of music wsa superior, Bruckner found himself severely criticized for his choice.

Still, he pursued his singular composing vision, writing several symphonies that were published and performed, though he was unappreciated for about twenty years.  Only with the completion of his fourth symphony, the only that he named, calling it "Romantic," was he given some recognition of his unique talent.  At the very end of 1884, however, with the premiere of the seventh symphony, which was published the next year, he finally found acclaim and favor.

And, it is a spectacular achievement, filled with beautiful melodic themes and figures, ingenious harmonies, and a refined sense of the building, subsiding, rising again, and then release of tension that marked the composer's work.  Typically, there were some revisions in the years immediately following

Like the other monumentalists Wagner and Mahler, listening to a Bruckner symphony takes patience and time.  The seventh clocks in a 67 minutes (though paling in comparison to the nearly 90-minute eighth and a final unfinished ninth that was already 66 minutes through three movements, while the incomplete finale could perhaps have been a half hour in length) with the first two movements taking over two-thirds of the length. 

The 26-minute adagio, in particular, is a gorgeous example of Bruckner's sense of structure and dynamics, rising and falling in rhythmic and harmonic tension and featuring many episodes of beautiful melodies.  The more compact scherzo and finale feature more examples of dramatic bombast complemented by contemplative passages, including the sweeping and graceful melodies of the former and the monumental buildup of the finale. 

It is worth noting that the symphony was written during the last illness of Wagner, though it was dedicated to Bavaria's King Ludwig II, a patron of Wagner and whose reign soon ended with strange intrigue and even more bizarre death of the deposed sovereign.

Bruckner lived another decade or so after the seventh symphony and has remained a relatively unappreciated composer since.  Though the photo above is from a late 1990s disc issued by an Austrian label, the conductor Georg Tintner was a one-man revivalist of Bruckner's works through a series of recordings made for the Naxos label and other entries from the Bruckner symphonic catalog will come from that impressive series.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Rough Guide to Afro-Peru

The Rough Guide series of albums highlighting world music has an exciting entry with this 2002 entry, subtitled "The Musical Spirit of Black Peru."  As is the case more often than recognized, the intersection of societies throughout the world brings interesting hybrids in music, so that the saying "music is the international language" might be somewhat modified to "music is an international language with many dialects."

On this sampler, there are eighteen tracks spanning just over an hour, providing a satisfying array of elements of music performed in the South American country which, as with so many "new world" states, has a profound debt owned to Africans who were forced to serve as slaves for Spanish overlords for centuries.  One of the better outcomes of this situation was the creation of a music that blended rhythms from West Africa with instrumentation and melodies from both the African and Spanish traditions.

YHB is not very familiar with the performers found on this album, though one name, that of Susana Baca, was vaguely recalled.  She, Eva Ayllón, Cecilia Barraza, Lucila Campos and the ensemble Peru Negro are each allotted two tracks, as is Oscar Aviles with varying partners.  The truth is that there isn't a marginal track on this excellent overview of a music that can only be very generally hinted at on the album.

There are breathy ballads, all-out party pieces, and some eclectic tracks, as well.  Baca's opener "Golpa E' Tierra" is a beautiful way to begin the record and the masterful sequencing is aptly demonstrated by the dance-heavy "Ruperta" by Peru Negro.  Other highlights for this listener include "Negro Carbon" from Manuel Donayre, Roberto Rivas' "Arroz con Concolon," featuring a donkey jaw shaker,  and Ayllón's "Cardo O Ceniza."  Again, though, everything is excellent on this top-notch sampler.

Monday, September 17, 2012

For Fanatics Only: Miles Davis, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions

After the groundbreaking albums, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, introduced yet another phase of trumpeter Miles Davis' remarkable career by launching fully into electronic instrumentation, the next album, 1971's A Tribute to Jack Johnson, which served as a soundtrack to a little-seen documentary about the great African-American boxer from the early 20th century, was poorly promoted by Columbia Records, which chose to devote resources to pushing another Davis record, the Live at the Fillmore East set, and did not sell as well as its predecessors.

Yet, Jack Johnson has attributes to it that make it a compelling continuation in Davis' development with improvisation through jazz, funk, electronic sound, and other elements.  And, as many reviewers have noted, though the ensemble playing in the aforementioned albums was excellent and Teo Macero's distinctive editing was remarkable, Davis' playing on Jack Johnson was probably better.  As importantly, the phenomenal guitarist John McLaughlin made some searing contributions that are notable sonic counterpoints (always a crucial dynamic in Miles' career) to the leader's trumpet.  The rest of the band, including Herbie Hancock on organ (no piano playing here), Michael Henderson on electric bass, drummer Billy Cobham, and young soprano sax player Steve Grossman, performs with great style and interconnectedness.

This is all the remarkable because the recording for the album began at an April 1970 session with the leader arriving late, so McLaughlin began to improvise some riffs and Henderson and Cobham quickly jumped in to provide rhythmic support.  Hancock, who had left Davis' band some time before, happened to be at the studio carrying a bag of groceries and was asked to sit at the Farfisa organ and start playing, though he resisted at first.  Finally Miles came in and, highly impressed by the jamming, quickly got his trumpet together and joined in.  After some major editing by Macero, including lifting material recorded in late 1969 and working on several takes in the main sesion, a 27-minute track called "Right Off" was assembled.

This was followed by another composite of different takes, skillfully edited by Macero with approval from Davis, called "Yesternow" and running only slightly shorter at 25 1/2 minutes.  Riffing off the bass line of James Brown's famed "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud", as well as recycling a small section of In a Silent Way's "Shhh/It's Peaceful,"  nearly half of the length of the track was lifted from a piece called "Willie Nelson."  This excerpt, however, featured other musicians who were not credited on the album.  These included bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, who was so notable on Bitches Brew, electric pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack deJohnette, and guitarist Sonny Sharrock.

Years later, the album was finally recognized by fans, critics and musicians for its excellent level of playing and innovative editing, as well as for the important Davis placed on recognizing Johnson as a man of black power long before the movement of that name.

When Columbia began its fantastic series of complete sessions box sets for Miles, its installment released in 2003 for the Jack Johnson period proved to be one that was revelatory because it mined the various takes that not only led to the creation of the heavily-edited albim, but cotemporaneous sessions that included much unreleased material and tracks that appeared on other records, such as the follow-up, Live-Evil, and 1974's Big Fun.

Still, it is five discs crammed with material and you'd have to be a serious Miles fan to even consider acquiring the box.  But, for those who do, there are remarkable moments throughout.  One is the pre-edited versions of "Go Ahead John," which, when it appeared on Big Fun, had been processed by Macero so that the guitar and drums were manipulated and then panned back and forth on both channels.  It likely seemed super-innovative at the time, but the original heard as recorded on this set  shows far more clearly that McLaughlin was truly unique in his playing and could deliver very powerful, heavy and blistering runs that just weren't heard before or since.  Even more killer are minutes of his performances on "Right Off" that were cut from the original album and the wailing and fuzz-box skronk elicited an admiring comment from Davis that there was "some nasty shit" that the guitarist laid down.

Another great discovery is the amazing playing of the largely-unknown Sonny Sharrock, who was likely invited because he seemed as close to Jimi Hendrix, whom Miles greatly admired and planned to work with before the rock god's death several months later, as could be found.  Actually, Sharrock was a masterful slide player and his work on "Willie Nelson" is a great example of that, though interested listeners can hear much more of that in Sharrock's later solo work and with the mind-pummeling Last Exit in the late 80s and early 90s.

Discs 3 and 4 has material that appeared in Live-Evil and features two versions of "Honky Tonk" and some short, haunting and beautiful pieces by Hermeto Pascoal, a Brazilian musician, such as "Little Church" and "Nem un Talvez" that proved to be good mood pieces to break up the intensity of other tracks.  The last disc has a two-part previously unreleased piece called "The Mask" before the album versions of "Right Off" and "Yesternow" appear.

Even though there are sometimes three, four, and even six versions of certain tracks, it is fascinating to hear the process of how Davis and Macero worked to take extended versions and different takes and then carefully edit them down to the final tracks that were released.  Any given listener could probably think of many portions that were left on the cutting room floor and which could have/should have been left in.

But, for true Miles fanatics, especially those who like his so-called "fusion" period, patience and careful listening can reveal so many amazing aspects of the recording process and elements of excellent music that, as with the unfortunate excising of Sharrock's contributions, was left behind.  The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions is a lot of music to take in, but even listening to a disc at a time over, say, a week span, is an exercise in hearing a great musician and a sympathetic producer create some of the most memorable music of the era.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings

Back in that critical year of 1990, when YHB was discovering jazz, classical, world and uncategorizable forms of music of all stripes, there was a stretch of delving deeply back to early recorded jazz.  This meant the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and some early blues, particularly Bessie Smith.

At that time, however, a new boxset was released by Columbia Records and its "Roots 'N Blues" series that provided the complete recordings of Robert Johnson.  Though not having heard any of his songs, YHB was familiar with the rudiments of the Johnson legend.

Namely, that Johnson, a native of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, a town now of about 4.500 people south of the state capital of Jackson, was a competed harmonica player and singer, but after living closer to Memphis in the far northwest corner of the state, he returned to his home area a spectacular guitarist.  It was said that he accomplished this through the proverbial "devil's bargain," selling his soul in exchange for his newfound musical talents.

Of course, it seems more likely that Johnson found other musicians from whom he could learn and it was said he emulated the style of the great Son House and took direct instruction from Ike Zimmerman, who was said to have acquired his abilities via supernatural agency playing in graveyards in the late hours.

In any case, Johnson toured throughout the Mississippi Delta regions in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana, but also performed in St. Louis, Chicago, New York and other farflung places.  In 1936, he was given the chance to cut his first recordings in a converted hotel room in San Antonio.  Over three days that November, Johnson recorded sixteen songs and alternate takes.  Of these, only two appearing on each side a 78-rpm record were released in his lifetime.  The A-side was "Terraplane Blues," backed with "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" and the release was through the Vocalion label.  This recording was a modest succes, tallying 5,000 sales in a regional market that served only blacks in the Jim Crow South.

In Dallas in June 1937, over two days, Johnson recorded another thirteen songs and some alternate takes.  In all, his recording career consisted of 41 surviving recordings of 29 pieces.  Four of these are included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 songs considered to be essential to the form.  Two, "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Cross Road Blues", were from the San Antonio sessions and the others, "Hell Hound on My Trail" and "Love in Vain Blues" came from Dallas.  These are certainly remarkable and representative pieces, though there are more in the collection to treasure.  This includes the very first piece Johnson record, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," "Come on in My Kitchen," "I'm A Steady Rollin' Man," and "Traveling Riverside Blues."  Lyrically, there is plenty of the usual sexual double entendres, but also some surprisingly reflective observations and the darker, intenser variety, as well.

Johnson's guitar playing features all manner of impressive technical devices for the day, from bottleneck slides, to chunky rhythmic figures, and rapid, precise picking and it is small wonder that so many blues and rock guitarists to follow would cite him as a prime influence.  Even with the primitive recording techniques of small-label 1930s products, Johnson's fluidity, power, flexibility and inventivenes are truly remarkable. 

Sadly, Johnson may have been on the verge of a discovery by a much larger national audience when John Hammond, the famed talent scout for Columbia Records, was recruiting performers for his "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall in late 1938 and asked for Johnson to be located for the performance, only to learn that the bluesman had died the previous August.

The circumstances of Johnson's death are, like most of his life story, murky, but it has been claimed that he was poisoned by the jealous husband of one of the many women Johnson looked to seduce in his career.  In any case, Johnson died on 16 August after a bout of vomiting and pneumonia, though his death certificate did not list a cause of death.  This, of course, only added to the speculation.

It has been often said by and of musicians that you can learn more about them through their music than any other source.  In the case of Robert Johnson, there wouldn't be much choice anyway, given that so little of his life is known.  Then again, it is really impossible to know how much of his lyrics were personal and how much literary (if that term fits.)

What is certain is that few, if any, blues musicians have had the legacy and influence of Robert Johnson, even if the legend might be so pronounced that other masters of the style are comparatively overlooked.  For YHB, this dabbling in the blues (and attendance at one blues festival in the mid-90s) was short-lived and stopped with Johnson . . . until recently.  In recent months, recordings by Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, Muddy Waters and Leadbelly have been given long-overdue attention and will be covered here down the road.

In the meantime, The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson still retain a powerful impact for this listener, over two decades since the compilation was issued.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Bass Clarinet and Piano

The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was a controversial and colorful figure in the already colorful and controversial world of modern (so-called avant garde) classical music.  His work was easily among the most outré of the post-World War II era, embracing abstract electronic soundscapes as well as unusual compositions for clarinet, piano and small and large ensembles. 

One work called for the use of several helicopters hovering over the performance space with the harsh whirring of the craft's blades being integral to the piece.  He also created monumental works that would have been virtually impossible to stage almost anywhere, such as one for a festival held in Iran during the early 1970s.

Stockhausen was not only influential in the modern classical scene, but also had a profound impact on musicians in the electronic scene, broadly considered rock music.  These included German performers like Kraftwerk and Neu and their British counterparts like Brian Eno and Cabaret Voltaire.  While the composer could be outwardly critical of these and others who drew inspiration from him, the direct and tangential influences are obvious.

While any modern classical music can be maddening and offputting to a great many people, YHB is inspired and fascinated by the eager and enthusiastic embrace of experimentalism behind the work of Stockhausen.  Some of the music, however, is more accessible than others (the composer occasionally has issued recordings of his conducting the work of traditional composers, such as Bach) and an album issued in 2007, the year of the composer's death, by the German label Musikproduktion Darbinghaus und Grimm or MDG not only features some of Stockhausen's most interesting acoustic works, but they are performed by a duo of superlative German musicians, Steffen Schleiermacher on piano and bass clarinetist Volker Hemken, in a production setting that is clear, rich and dynamic.

All of the works on this disc are fantastic, but the 26-minute Tierkreis, which assigns melodies to each of the dozen signs of the zodiac, is the most striking because the two instrumentalists perform together, and the bass clarinet and piano are augmented by the playful timbres of the toy piano and the music box.  The original composition was for the latter and percussion, so the subsititution of the richer, more resonant former instruments provides a marked contrast.  Excepting the nearly 6-minute Libra, which still does not drag, the individual pieces are short, concise and expertly performed.

Hemken's performance on In Freundschaft is also a marvel with Stockhausen's quite varied score allowing for a full exposition of the sounds that the bass clarinet can produce, in terms of high and low registers and in loud and soft volume, giving the illusion of more than one player.  Notably, the composer is quoted in the jacket as observing that his sense of formula in writing the work deals both with mathematics and magic and, while a trained listener (not this one, however) can understand the former as basically objective, the question of the latter is, seemingly, totally subjective, which may be the point.  Regardless of the structural question, In Freundschaft, written literally as a birthday present for Suzanne Stephens, whose clarinet work with Stockhausen's pieces was the inspiration.

Schleiermacher likewise shines on the three piano pieces taken from the Klavierstück series, composed in the 1950s and very early 1960s, and which are among the most commonly performed piano works by Stockhausen.  With the excellent recording conditions, the striking of a single powerful chord resonates with the listener and this is juxtaposed with fragments of pretty almost-Romantic playing that tend to end abruptly and drift off into the concert hall in which the performance was recorded.

The Tanza Luzefa! which is drawn from one of several operas that constitute the massive Licht cycle is a strange and intriguing mix of bass clarinet playing with purrs, smacking and other non-traditional expressions with sounds that include laughter, clicking, stamping and other elements that bring a different approach to rhythm.  The programming of this piece amidst the Klavierstück is quite interesting.

The use of the word "accessible" for this selection of works is only meaningful, perhaps, when compared to some of the more esoteric of Stockhausen's works like Mantra, Kontakte, the Spiral pieces, and the Helicopter Quartet, in which electronics and environmental distortions, like literally having helicopters flying during the performance.  But, there is a warmth and immediacy, even in their more abstract moments, that, coupled with the sensitivity and empathy that the players bring, make this album a favorite of the several Stockhausen recordings in YHB's collection.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Talip Ozkan: The Dark Fire

Here is another phenomenal album issued by Bill Laswell's Axiom label back in the early 1990s: Talip Ozkan's The Dark Fire.  The Turkish saz player performs muscular and impassioned traditional songs and vocals.  The saz or baglama, as commonly known in Turkey, is a lute-like instrument with a wide, deep body, but with a neck far longer than the lute, and is played either with a plectrum or in a fingerpicking style.

Ozkan (1939-2010) was from the Acipayam region of southwest Turkey and came to attention in the late 1950s and 1960s performing on radio programs in the capital Ankara and he was the Director of Folkloric music and dance programming for the national radio station system.  In 1977, he moved to Paris, pursuing doctorate work in ethnomusicology and teaching at conservatories and universities there.  After a career teaching at a conservatory in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, Ozkan retired.

It was in Paris that The Dark Fire was made, with production handled by Laswell and his long-time musical associate Nicky Skopelitis, a very fine guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, and engineered by Oz Fritz, who work is typically clear and crystalline, making Ozkan's saz work ring and resound brilliantly, while excellently capturing his emotive baritone vocal style.  He was accompanied on some tracks by saz player and percussionist Mahmut Demir, whose work gives a further richness abd breadth to the already intense sounds.  Ozkan was under-recorded, so this album has preserved the little-documented work of a true master of traditional Turkish music.

The tracks reflect the long history and traditions of Turkish music.  The opener deals with a famed troubadour and soldier named Koroglu, who predated Islam's arrival some 1300 years ago.  The second piece, Karsilama, is a Thracian dance song with percussion providing a lively beat.  A love song, Girdin Yarnin, comes from the Azeri people, whose homeland was today's republic of Azerbaidjan, adjacent to Turkey.  Suda Balik Oynuyor has a melody going back nearly 900 years in the Anatolia region of the central part of the country.  Another tribute to a troubadour is Komur Gozlum and this song is emblematic of the more sensual of traditional Turkish song.  A nod to the tradition of the whirling dervishes, whose music was recently covered in this blog, comes with Yuce Daq Basin Da Bir Koyun Meler, but in the Alevi tradition (rather than the Mehlevis highlighted in the earlier post), women take part with men.  A dance tune without a name, so it was called Sipsi after the style of dance embodied in it, comes from Ozkan's home town.  One of the more interesting tunes if Gah Cikarin Gokyuzune, which herald the Alevi troubadour Kul Nesimi, who resisted denying his religious beliefs and was skinned alive some 600 years ago.  Another dance piece, the Abdal, named for the Anatolian people who developed the style is the longest track at over 9 minutes and is a favorite of YHB.  The closing song is Feridem, named after a woman named Farida from an ancient region of Anatolia.

As in so many other cases, Laswell deserves a great deal of credit for bringing great music from other societies around the world to a (potential) audience through a major label, Axiom being distributed for several years through Chris Blackwell's Island Records.  And, the late Talip Ozkan's rendering of traditional Turkish music through his excellent saz playing and his earnest vocals are worth seeking out.