Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The World of Early Music

The amazing Naxos label, having produced so many excellent budget-priced classical recordings, has a line of "Early Music" albums, with an explanatory note for its 2-CD The World of Early Music set stating that "we limit the term Early Music to cover a period ranging from plainchant to the end of the seventeenth century."

This album consists of a first CD dealing with "Medieval and Renaissance Music" and the second with "The Baroque," or, rather, that generalized delineator before Handel, Bach, Vivaldi and the like.  In any case, The World of Early Music is filled with remarkably variable types of music, mostly from rather obscure composers and sources, with representation from better-known figures like Hildegard van Bingen from the plainchant side, Palestrina's sacred music, John Dowland's vocal and lute songs, Monteverde groundbreaking operatic work, Purcell's instrumental pieces, the fugues of Pachebel and Corelli's sonatas and concerto grossos.

While The World of Early Music is an overview, it is questionable whether the 2 hour and 33 minute length, although certainly generous and comprehensive, is suited for those new to the genre.  This listener's first exposure to the music came with a curious late 1990s release from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi's Adventures in Early Music, which, while featuring ensembles that play with period instruments, also has several pieces that extend far beyond the era most people assign for early music and contained, for example, pieces by Mahler and Barber, though beautifully performed.  A couple discs of Gregorian chants followed and an interest in this very specific religious music developed.

Not long after that, a personal connection to early music arose when the brother of a friend, Brian Asawa, recorded duets of lute and vocal music by Dowland and others.  Brian, a countertenor, sent the disc himself and this will be a blog post on its own, as he and his lute-playing partner delivered a fine recording of this little-heard music.

The World of Early Music is a more recent purchase of perhaps a few years back, but, having some grounding and a high degree of appreciation for the genre certainly made it easier to enjoy and digest the extraordinarily generous sample that Naxos produced. 

Though much of the first disc consists of religious works, given that this was the predominant nature of music in the medieval and early renaissance periods, a listener need not be of faith to enjoy the plaintive and simple pieces, many without instrumental accompaniment, that are included.  Other works are that of troubadors from the 12th and 13th centuries, while instrumental music begins to be represented with 15th century early Renaissance performances.  Also of note is a sample of the songs of Sephardic Jews of pre-1492 Spain, consort music which instrumentally took on what previous vocal polyphony provided, and the development of early keyboard music, principally the organ.

The second disc takes the listener, especially those who enjoy the late baroque work of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi and those who like opera, closer to modern forms of classical music.  While religious music, it is five of twenty-three samples, and the development of more complex instrumental music is highlighted.  The harpsichord is prominent through the work of uncle and nephew, Luis and Francois Couperin.  Finally, the larger ensemble work of Corelli points the way to those who would follow in the later baroque.

The set comes a very helpful and detailed set of unattributed notes and a list of dozens of Naxos recordings from the series that show the range and variety of the broad "Early Music" category.  It may not be an ideal introduction, but The World of Early Music is certainly a superlative summary.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Gnawa Music of Marrakesh: Night Spirit Masters

Another essential item from the Axiom Records catalog of world music recordings, courtesy of the production efforts of Bill Laswell and his associate Richard Horowitz, is the mindblowing and otherworldly 1990 album Night Spirit Masters, credited to Gnawa Music of Marrakesh.

The producers and engineers traveled to Morocco and, according to the liners, made the recording in the "Medina of Marrakesh," the historic and cultural core of that ancient city with its component parts dating back to the 11th Century and which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Using a 12-track digital recorder, handled by Billy Youdelman, whose engineering credits date to Bob Dylan's 1978 Street Legal album, as well as recordings for Little Feat, the Eagles, Dionne Warwick, Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon, and several of Laswell's projects, including the Herbie Hancock record, Future Shock, and others, the team recorded musicians in the public setting.  Youdelman does a truly impressive job of recording and the mixing and mastering are also essential in creating a beautiful sound from beautiful music.

Interestingly, some observers have viewed Night Spirit Masters as a Westernized version of Gnawa, as if some elements of the fusion of the sound was somehow illegitimate.  Yet, the very nature of Gnawa music is fusionist--it came from black slaves from Mali taking their native sounds and then mixing them with the Arabic and Islamic elements found in Morocco.  

Instruments include the sintir (a three-stringed lute functioning as a bass), the darbuka or goblet drum, other percussion instruments, as well as hand claps and chanted and sung vocals comprise a music that is repetitive, highly rhythmic and percussive, and often building in tempo and intensity as a form of religious ritual involving dance as well as music to induce a trance state of ecstacy.

The tightness of these musicians, true masters of their form, and the excellent recording quality make this album, whether overly "Westernized" or not, really enjoyable, captivating and hypnotic.  The first two pieces includes the sintir, drumming and vocals, with the second, "Mimoun Mamrba" featuring that gradual increase in tempo that is a hallmark of the sound.  "Tramin" is a three-minute piece of trio drumming that shows an interesting polyrhythmic approach.

Track four, however, is the highlight of the album and this listener well remembers the powerful effect "Chabako" had way back in 1990 or thereabouts when this six-minute masterpiece evoked a frenzied response from its moderate sintir opening, augmented by hand cymbals, the oud (another stringed lute, but of higher pitches than the sintir), the call-and-response vocals which built slowly and surely from a medium tempo to faster and faster levels until you all but had to jump up and find some way to keep up with the transformation.  It is easy to understand why Gnawa music is trance-inducing from this piece alone.

Another like-minded tour de force is "Baniya," another six-minute transportive exercise in ecstasy with the larger ensemble like that found in "Chabako" and with a catchier melody than the former.  The two sintir and quartet volcals of "Jillala" is another excellent song with a duet drum piece following.  Then comes another breathtaking large group work called "Hamouda" that closes the album in much the same way, as "Chabako" and "Baniya" had.

In all, this is a nice selection of pieces with varied personnel, instrumentation, and tempi.  To an ignorant Westerner, this is a great experience in hearing music from a part of the world that has so much interface between societies in terms of trade, warfare, food, and music, whether it is considered "authentic" or not.  Paul Bowles, an American composer and write who lived for over 50 years in Tangier and authored the famed novel, The Sheltering Sky, provides brief notes about the people and the music that proved helpful to the novice who bought this album twenty plus years back.

Bill Laswell and cohorts (including Chris Blackwell and Island Records, who funded the Axiom catalog) are to be recognized once again for introducing music that broadens the horizons and expands the ear beyond what is exposed to in all-Western forms.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sam Rivers: Trio Live

It was almost a year ago, at the end of 2011, that the underrecognized Sam Rivers died at the age of 88.  A multi-instrumentalist, who played tenor and soprano saxopones, flute and piano, Rivers came up in the jazz ranks in Boston, but remained a little-known figure elsewhere until his former sideman, the teenage drum phenom Tony Williams, recruited him to join the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, when Rivers was already 40.

While Rivers' tenure with Davis was short, because his playing just was too free for the leader's tastes, it is definitely worth hearing the long-delayed release Miles in Tokyo, which demonstrates just how inventive and distinctive Rivers' sound was.

After that brief period with Davis, though, Rivers was signed to Blue Note Records and delivered some interesting, if not particularly high selling, albums during the mid-1960s.  After another period of obscurity, the Impulse! label signed him in 1973 and a couple of fascinating live albums were released, including Streams, which was this blogger's introduction to this amazing performer some twenty years ago.

However, the Trio Live album, while somewhat similar in structure of the group and arrangement of the pieces, is just a bit better.

The first three pieces, a suite called "Hues of Melanin," present 44 minutes of perfomance at Yale University in November 1973 and teamed Rivers with the supple and creative Cecil McBee on bass and the polyrhythmic and vigorous drumming of Barry Altschul.  McBee was also outstanding on Streams, which also featured future disco-era hit maker Norman Connors on the traps.  While some suggest that Connors was not suited for Rivers' style, and this may be true, Altschul did seems a better fit.

The rhythm section does do a great job creating an accompaniment that holds up to Rivers' prodigious playing.  It's one thing to be a master of a chosen instrument, but Rivers was spectacular on three.  His tenor playing was truly his own, not sounding like any of the masters before him, and his navigation from the lower to the higher ranges is impeccable, though on Trio Live, he only played this instrument on one five-plus minute section of this concert.  

In the 34-minute first section, he plays expansive on both soprano sax and flute and, on the former, he displays a stamina, clarity and expressiveness that would give such better-known masters as Steve Lacy and John Coltrane a run for their money.  His flute playing is also excellent and it is on this instrument that he tended, in these extremely free trio performances (the only type, he said, where he felt he could be truly free) to engage in a stream-of-consciousness series of yelps, screams, and other forms of vocalizing that might turn some listeners off, though it strikes this listener as a joyful reaction to the freedom he and his bandmates were enjoying.

While there is no comparing him to any of the greats, his piano section, comprising just over four minutes, finds him playing quite well, with flowing, graceful lines that cascade and flow easily and attractively.

The last two pieces are called "Suite for Molde" and take in just under 20 minutes of a show at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway in August 1973 with Arild Anderson playing bass.  Anderson plays well and works smoothly with Rivers and Altschul, with his bowed work on the second part meshing nicely with that of Rivers, though he doesn't have the strength and elasticity of McBee (but, then, few bassists did.)  This work has over half the time, denoted as part two, devoted to Rivers playing tenor and he is simply awesome here, ranging rapidly and mightily on this highly expressive and emotive instrument. 

But, Rivers' work on the first part with the subtitle "Onyx" used for the soprano sax portion and "Topaz" for the flute section.  It would be interesting to know just what the bandleader felt distinguished each by the names of the precious metals, while perhaps the denotation of "Ivory Black" for the piano section of "Hues for Melanin" seems obvious, while the term "Violet" for the tenor portion of that Yale performance might reflect something visceral and striking?

Those terms would aptly describe the entire recording and it is interesting to read Rivers' comments from the original 1978 liner notes:  "You can come out here and be an intuitive musician and be really happening, but your dreams and visions won't last forever.  If you don't get into the books and get this technical thing together while your intuitive things is happening, it's over."

This could be interpreted to mean that the spiritual vibe that animated much free jazz in the 1960s and early 1970s was driven more by the former quality, which has its virtues, but that the technical ability developed through much hard work and practice can take that intuitiveness and give it something more solid and substantial.  Conversely, technical talent alone, with the emotive power of intuitive improvisation, can come across as cold.  This might be an apt way to distinguish craftsmanship (technics) with artistry (intuitiveness), provided that the exceptional artist has both.

That, the great Sam Rivers had in overflowing abundance on these performances.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lull: Moments

Mick Harris became known as the insanely fast drummer for the notorious 80s grindcore pioneers Napalm Death, but, after leaving the band in 1991, largely put away his drumsticks and took up electronic music. 

Harris formed Scorn with Napalm Death's first bassist, Nic Bullen, and had some success with albums like Evanescence that established a form of electronica that was slower in tempo, heavier in atmospherics and darker in subject matter.  While Scorn continued as a Harris solo project after Bullen departed in 1995 until Harris decided to end the project last year, he has also embarked on many other solo and collaborative projects over the years, many of which will be highlighted here later. 

Other notable projects include the remarkable Painkiller with saxophonist John Zorn and bassist Bill Laswell, both incredibly prolific and diverse performers, with this trio essentially lasting about four years.  Harris played live drums in this outfit, one of the very few instances in whichhe continued to do so after he left Napalm Death, but his departure was largely predicated on his continued dislike of his performance on the kit.  Remarkably, there was a one-off reunion of Painkiller in Paris in 2008, which appears not to have been recorded.  There will be Painkiller music detailed here in the future, as well.

As will another exceptional collaboration involving a trifecta of recordings with former Eyeless in Gaza vocalist Martyn Bates called Murder Ballads.  This 1995-98 project was a modern update of the folk murder ballad, which was popular centuries ago, and Bates' crooning of lyrics dealing with all manner of human crimes outside the pale of polite society are well-matched by eerie, droning, slowly evolving soundscapes crafted by Harris.

Other notable works are efforts with such artists as Eraldo Bernocchi, James Plotkin, Laswell, and Neil Harvey, some of which venture into the so-called "drum-n-bass" territory, while others were more ambient.  In any case, Harris' discography is diverse and broad within the general spectrum of electronic music and has a small, but very devoted fanbase.

Another early endeavor was Lull, which has been termed by those who cannot live without labels as isolationist or darkwave, whatever those are supposed to mean.  Actually, the former does, perhaps, hint at a key element in the music, which involves washes of sound, bass-like rumblings which can shake the speakers, eerie background noises and an achingly slow development of pulse that is usually almost entirely absent of a pronounced beat.  From the earliest effort, Dreamt About Dreaming (1992) to the most recent release Like a Slow River (2008), the Lull project has been one that has experimented with the fringes of ambience, but far removed from the new age-like productions that lie on the furthest end of the spectrum from what Harris has concocted.

To those attuned to this music, it can be extraordinarily beautiful and, yet, is also can be disturbing and unsettling to others who might not be prepared for the starkness of the sounds.  For this listener, Lull has been an object of fascination because it is transportive music and creates its own world of truly immersive sound.  It does not lend itself to the background or to systems that lack a decent low-end.  In the case of YHB, the music is best heard on the home system with a nice set of Klipsch bookshelf speakers that deliver excellent performance on that low-end and works pretty well even in the car, which has a decent system.

The epitome of the Lull experience to this enthusiast is the 1998 Relapse Records release, Moments, the fifth album in the project.  This 62-minute work is divided into 99 tracks, but it really is, like its predecessor Continue, a work that is a continuous piece embracing all the hallmarks of the sound Harris had developed with Lull from its beginnings.  Notably, the album is said to have been inspired by the soundtrack to the impenetrable, but highly immersive film Eraserhead and it would be interesting to watch the film with Moments playing along with it (actually, this blogger was so close to playing the album for Halloween for any trick-or-treaters who might come by, but there are so few typically and they're mostly small kids who would likely be too frightened to even approach the house.)

It does not seem particularly meaningful to try and describe the music anymore than what is stated above, other than to say that, if one is prepared to give this album (and the other Lull recordings) a dedicated listen and is open to being taken somewhere that can be dark, foreboding and, yet, also captivating and, yes, starkly beautiful, hearing Moments can be one of those moments that expands the horizons of listening to music in an utterly transformative way.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Elliott Carter: The Minotaur

Still active as a centenarian, the remarkable American composer Elliott Carter died last week at 103.  His work has been characterized as complex and difficult and, to varying degrees, this is true with "modern music" generally, but there is a great breadth and depth to Carter's work over many decades.  For Carter, polyphony, with different sounds emerging from elements of an orchestra, and contrasting and varied rhythms and tonalities working within different sections, became his hallmark.  So, as is the case with so much recent music, it also takes some recalibration of a listener's ears to appreciate what is going on when one is used to hearing music the "traditional" way.

Consequently, it might be easier to start with Carter by delving into his earlier music and this Elektra Nonesuch recording from 1992 offers selections from the composer's 1940s work, when he was starting to be recognized as an emerging new voice.  And, while the music is not as "challenging" as what came later, especially in the 1960s, it is possible to hear where Carter was going.

While his ballet, The Minotaur, was not often performed, it had its roots in 1946 with the famed impresario George Balanchine, who worked with Carter on the thematic conception based on Greek mythology.  Just as the process was undertaken, however, Balanchine was invited to be a guest ballet master with the Paris Opera and the work of choreographing The Minotaur fell to his assistant, John Taras and the work premiered in March 1947.  Even though performances were few, Carter did rework the music into a concert suite, recorded here in 1988.

The stately melodic statement is striking and memorable and the work overall is about as traditional as Carter ever came.  While this might strike some people as an aberration and not essential to the composer's body of work, YHB, with all of his ignorance about the technical niceties of classical composition, enjoys The Minotaur as a balanced blend of so-called neo-classicism with modern elements.

There is a bit of a diversion with two of three short pieces accompanying poems of the great Robert Frost.  They are beautifully rendered by mezzo soprano Jan De Gaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish and would seem entirely out of place perhaps if not followed by Carter's Piano Sonata.

This is a generally romantic piece in two movements, and yet again, infused with some of the variable rhythms, harmonic elements and coloration that foresaw the composer's later development.  But, it is a nice balance with gorgeous lyricism, stately cadenzas, rapid passages abruptly turning into slow, halting ones, so that the marking of tempo is not at all strictly observed, but that's part of the interest generated by these shifting sounds.  Pianist Paul Jacobs plays beautifully and the recording quality is excellent, as well.

The Piano Sonata is generally considered Carter's major achievement in his earlier period and it is a very fine work, elegantly rendered here.  But, The Minotaur is also very enjoyable, whether heard as accompaniment to modern ballet or on its own terms.  Future posts will concern Carter's work in the 1960s and in more recent years, in which the complexity grew tremendously, but also brought him  acclaim as one of the more versatile and appreciated modern composers.

May the amazing Elliott Carter, creator of so much wonderful music for so many years, rest in peace and may his music be heard for many centuries to come.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party: Intoxicated Spirit

The Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a legend in his native Pakistan and somewhat known in other parts of the world before some of his music appeared in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking and turned him into something of a phenomenon even in the U. S.

Born in 1948, Nusrat was a member of a family steeped deeply for centuries in the tradition of qawwali, a form of music which came out of the mystical traditions of Sufi Islam, and which arose in the Persian Empire and then spread to popularity in South Asia.  The devotional nature of qawwali has often been misunderstood because lyrics appear to refer to earthly love and intoxication from the overuse of wine, but instead are infused with metaphors for spiritual concerns cloaked in secular language.  The lyrics of qawaali can be generally aligned with translations of such Sufi poetry as that of the great master, Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the Persian poet, jurist, theologian and mystic of the 13th century, when the Arab world was among the most advanced in the world and far beyond the Europe of the so-called Dark Ages.

Musically, the structure of the party is along the lines of having a lead singer (Nusrat), side singers and a harmonium (formerly the sarangi) player in a front row and a group of backup singers and percussionists in a rear row.  While there are portions of pieces that are arranged and predetermined, there is also considerable room for improvisation by everyone, with the singer punctuating the lyrics with vocal effects of a breathtaking variety and Nusrat was the indisputed master in his realm, even as he modernized elements of the performances while firmly rooting his work in tradition.  He leads his background singers in chants and call-and-response sections that are part of the trance-inducing magic of the music.

As befits a mysticallly-oriented recording, the pieces start slowly and quietly with the lead vocals laying the melodic and lyrical groundwork and the remainder of the performers providing their accompaniment.  Over time through generally long pieces (20-30 minutes can be typical on recordings, though not necessarily so in live performance, during which songs can go on much longer, not unlike the Indian raga) the intensity builds as the lead singer uses a volume, power and a variety of vocalizing techniques that are not found in Western musics, and which provide a soaring, penetrating and intense quality of inspiration and expression, while the other musicians increase the volume and speed of the rhythms and harmonic accompaniment to keep the lead singer moving upwards into flights of ecstacy.

With Nusrat and Party, the art of the qawaali is at its peak with his unparallelled voice rising and gliding above and within the steady handclaps, hand percussion, and harmonium played by the other performers.  Generally, there are two commonly-available types of recordings to acquire for those who want to experience the transcendent, uplifting and otherworldly sounds of Nusrat and Party. 

The most popular were those issued by Peter Gabriel's Real World label and, while some of these adhere to the traditional format of Pakistani qawaali, others bring in, if usually very sensitively, Western musicians and instrumentation.  Future posts will include some of these recordings, which are consistently high-quality and excellent vehicles for presenting Nusrat's music to a larger worldwide audience, as befits the Real World philosophy and output.

For those looking to listen to Nusrat and Party in the traditional presentation style, there are harder-to-find releases on the Shanachie label, best known generally for its reggae releases, and which licensed four albums from Pakistani sources and released most of them in the midst of Nusrat's mid-90s popularity.  This listener was fortunate enough to discovery Nusrat in the very early part of that decade, through the first Shanachie album, a studio effort called The Day, The Night, The Dawn, The Dusk (1991.)  In this vein, but because it is a live recording, the 1996 release, Intoxicated Spirit, is a good place to indulge in the more "indigenous" type of qawaali made by the group made in Pakistan before Nusrat acquired the brief fame in the West that ended with his untimely passing at only age 48 in Summer 1997.

Intoxicated Spirit features four tracks, the first two of which are 23 and 24 minutes respectively, while the others are 12 and 14 minutes.    The centerpiece of the album clearly is the first piece, Yeh Jo Halka Halka, in which the lengthy translated lyrics are reprinted and have to, again, be seen metaphorically not as an earthbound love song, but as a mystical paean to the religious ecstacy sought by devotees of Sufism.  The steady and building rhythms, the beautiful harmonium work, and, naturally, Nusrat's amazing singing are on full display on this opening song.

The next track, Ruk Pe Rehmat Ka, is lengthier than the first, but also is more subdued and introspective for a longer period before building into that ecstatic display of finely-honed rhythmic intensity and Nusrat's staggering improvisational vocalisations.

The last piece, Meri Saqi Saqi Yeh, is unusual in the sense that it brings in the more traditional, but displaced, sarangi, a stringed instrument that is played with a bow, but which also has to be retuned between pieces, hence the popularity of the harmonium, which doesn't require the retuning.  There is also the use of a zither or qanun, and the use of these instruments gives a notable difference in sound to the song in comparison to the others.

The loss of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to cardiac arrest following kidney and liver failure at a relatively young age was immensely felt among devotees of the music and the Sufi tradition.  While others continue to successfully perform the music, notably including his nephew, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the visibility of qawaali during that brief period in the mid-90s when Nusrat was a worldwide phenomenon is unlikely to be at that level again.  Fortunately, his recordings can be enjoyed and appreciated and the depth, passion, technique and earnestness of this great artist will live on.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:  Intoxicated Spirit (Shanachie, 1996)

1.  Yeh Jo Halka Halka  23:00
2.  Ruk Pe Rehmat Ka  24:00
3.  Be Wafa  12:00
4.  Meri SAqi Saqi Yeh  14:00