Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Simon Shaheen/Vishwa Mohan Bhatt: Saltanah

This summit of two musical masters from traditions that have common roots but also noted differences is aptly subtitled in the very helpful notes by Dr. Habib Hassan Touma of the International Institute for Traditional Music in Berlin as where "The rag and the maqam meet."

In other words, Bhatt comes from the Indian world of the rag, or raga, while Shaheen is from that of the Arabic maqam.  Both forms of music rely on a modal system and are heavily improvisatory after the performing of a melody line from which to develop the improvisation.

The word saltanah essentially refers to the mastery with which the two men play their instruments.  Bhatt, actually, plays something unique--a mohan vina, which a guitar-like instrument of his design which has sixteen strings, four of which play, by strumming, the drone so typical of Indian music and the remaining constituting the melody strings, which are struck with a pick.  Moreover, this instrument is played on the lap much like a steel guitar.  As explained by Dr. Touman, the mohan vina matches the tonal dimensions of the sitar, one of the mainstays of the raga.

As for Shaheen, he has been highlighted in this blog already through his amazing duet album with Ali Jihad Racy called Taqasim and is a virtuoso on the violin and the oud, the lute that is the core of much of Arabic music.  Shaheen has helped to popularize the oud and the maqam in the West.

This remarkable album consists of five pieces that bring together a rag and a maqam with the players alternating in a stunning display of technique, but also of feeling.  They are given simple titles like "Dawn," ""Dusk," and "Mists,"as well as "Saltanah" and "Ghazal."  The leaders are joined by Ronu Majumdar on two tracks playing the bansuri and Sangeeta Shankar on the violin on "Ghazal."

Dr. Touma explained the structure and performance of the pieces, while producer Kavichandran Alexander penned a concise but useful essay on the history of these musics and short biographical sketches of Bhatt and Shaheen.

These kinds of records tend to get labeled as "fusion," which calls to mind electric jazz or really disparate blending of musics, but there is actually a great deal here which is intricately tied to common historical roots, the use of modal system, and a reliance on improvisation. 

To this listener, this isn't so much as "fusion" as it is a melding of complementary musical forms played by two stellar musicians.  Saltanah is a great work and is an interest comparative record to Shaheen and Racy's Taqasim.

Anyone interested in or curious about the music of India and the Arab world would do well to search out this fantastic 1996 release on Water Lily Acoustics, a small Santa Barbara, California label.

Simon Shaheen/Vishwa Mohan Bhatt:  Saltanah (Water Lily Acoustics, 1996)

1.  Dawn (Rag Kirwani/Maqam Nahawand)  15:24
2.  Ghazal (Rag Vasant Mukhari/Maqam Hijaz)  16:05
3.  Saltanah (Rag Bagashri/Maqam 'Ajam Mu'addal)  8:23
4.  Mists (Rag Pahari/Maqam 'Ajam)  12:34
5.  Dusk (Rag Bhairavi/Maqam Kurd)  15:23

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Albert Ayler: Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings

The first Albert Ayler this blogger purchased back around 1990 was the original single-disc Live in Greenwich Village, released in 1967.  Admittedly, the album proved to be a hard-sell at the time with its freeing of time and rhythm, simple march-like melodies, and powerful intense soloing by the tenorist and others in his band all but overwhelming.

Years passed, though, and the gradual recalibration of listening to other so-called "free jazz," including the great Cecil Taylor (it took some time to get acclimated there, too), the post-1964 work of the sublime John Coltrane, such albums as the remarkable Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, and others finally took root.  Allowing preconceptions to be broken down and new ways of hearing to come to the fore led to a greater appreciation for Ayler's work, especially when the tremendous Spiritual Unity (previously spotlighted here) was heard.

For a while, every Ayler recording that could be obtained was purchased and listened to with eagerness to enjoy his relentless pursuit of the joy of sound.  Eventually, the mammoth 10-disc box set, Holy Ghost, was acquired and it will also be given due attention here (under the occasional, half-humorous moniker of "For Fanatics Only.)

It's amazing, then, that Ayler only recorded for about seven years, with the period from 1964-67 being that in which his most fruitful work was made.  One of the great documents of his live work is the double-disc Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings, which augments the original live album with other performances.

The opening track, "Holy Ghost", is the sole offering from a March 1965 set at The Village Gate and features a quintet with Ayler's brother Don on trumpet, Lewis Worrrell on bass, cellist Joel Freedman, and the great drummer Sunny Murray, one of those most responsible for the titanic shift away from regular timekeeping and rhythm to a more open conception.  Freedman's cello playing also provides a startling type of color and tone when heard against Ayler's impassioned playing and Donald Ayler's rough, but intense contributions.

The sessions that were used in the original album were recorded in December 1966 at The Village Vanguard and at The Village Theater about two months later.  At the Vanguard, violinist Michel Sampson, bassists Bill Folwell and Henry Grimes, and drummer Beaver Harris joined the Ayler brothers and the presence of two bass players and Sampson's work gave a notably difference in atmosphere and rhythm.  On one track, "Angels," a pianist performed with Ayler and it is assumed it was Call Cobbs, Jr., an older man who played occasionally with Ayler over the years.

The Village Theater's set had a trombonist, George Steele, on the incomplete tune "Universal Thoughts" and this time both Sampson and Freedman appeared, upping the ante further in terms of what the stringed instruments brought to the larger format of the band.  Folwell was joined on bass by Alan Silva, exclusively using the bow evidently.  Harris did the drumming, except on the tribute "For John Coltrane" that opens disc two.

A couple of pieces are in mono sound and another did not have a master tape version, but those who appreciate the idealism, power, passion and yearning that is evident in Ayler's music will have no problem hearing songs that are low-fi or suddenly trail off.  Ayler was completely sincere in his belief that his music was inspired by divine ideas and his desire to elevate his work into a spiritual plane is obvious.  Ultimately, he tried more commercial work after 1967 and struggled to find an audience before his mysterious and untimely death in September 1970.

Undoubtedly, listening to the work of this remarkable saxophonist is challenging and, as has been stated here before, the advice offered by him and his brother is about the best that can be given for those willing to try.  In other words, try to follow the sound, not the notes.  Being open-minded and then geared towards the sound rather than the structure is the way to go with the work of Albert Ayler.  It took this listener some time to adapt, but the results have been rewarding and uplifting.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Dome 1 & 2

After the breakup of Wire in 1980, infamously, though intriguingly, chronicled on the album Document and Eyewitness, the members of the four-piece embarked on various projects.  Colin Newman released A-Z later that year and it has been said that many of the songs on the record were intended for a Wire album and it can be readily understood why as it has many elements that seemed a progression of where the band had been headed with its recent recordings.

Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis, however, took the opportunity to reenter the studio just a few days after Wire's last concert to develop a project called Dome.  Working quickly, the duo came up with ten pieces that largely took the form of pre-existing material intended for Wire and then added new electronic experiments intertwined with guitar, bass percussion and vocals.  Whereas Newman, who always a bit more of a songwriter's touch, also did some experimenting on his record, while also mainly relying on relatively straightforward song structures, Lewis and Gilbert tended far more to abstraction, albeit in a compelling and mesmerizing way.

The first album did feature several vocal-infused pieces, including the opening "Cancel Your Order," the hypnotic "Cruel When Complete," with haunting vocals by "A.M.C.," that is, Angela Conway, who also received songwriting credit, and the most straight-ahead song on the disc, "Rolling Upon My Day," with its simple, but appealing guitar line. 

Otherwise, there are plenty of weird and wonderful electronic sounds and noises on the rest of the album, which was recorded over three days in mid-March and the first of April 1980.

The duo quickly returned to work in August to record seven tracks that comprised the second album and here abstraction reigned supreme and the material was even stranger, including the two-part centerpiece, "The Red Tent 1 & 2", in which Lewis recorded his vocals while lying down in a tent; "Breathsteps;" "Ritual View" and the remarkable closer, "Keep It."  Unlike the first record, which had its in-development Wire leftovers, this album was built largely on its own sense of sonic (mis)adventure, though "Ritual View" was a reworked Wire track that wasn't released, however, until 1996's Turns and Strokes.

For those more attuned to the song forms found in early Wire, Newman's record is, by far, the easier on the ears, though, again, it has moments of experimental adventure that he would expand upon in subsequent solo efforts like the instrumental-dominated 1981 release Provisionally Entitled The Singing Fish

Those who noticed, however, that there was always some space in Wire's first three albums for electronic textures and rhythms that leaned toward the so-called "avant garde" or "art music," Gilbert and Lewis's work on the first Dome albums showed that they were more than ready to enlarge their interest in texture and sound.  While the first album, in particular, leavened the experiments with some familiar song structures, Dome 2 took the adventures much further.  For those interested in the exploration of sound in a minimalist and low-tech fashion, it can be quite rewarding.

Someday, the Dome 3 & 4 disc will be highlighted as Lewis and Gilbert continued their partnership further into the 1980s and before Wire regrouped to make a very different kind of music in the latter half of that decade.

Dome 1 (1980)
1.  Cancel Your Order
2.  Cruel When Complete
3.  And Then . . .
4.  Here We Go
5.  Rolling Upon My wWay
6.  Say Again
7.  Linasixup
8.  Airmail
9.  Ampnoise
10.  Madmen

Dome 2 (1981)
1.  The Red Tent 1 & 2
2.  Long Lost Life
3.  Breathsteps
4.  Reading Prof. B
5.  Ritual View
6.  Twist Up
7.  Keep It

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

Now plumbing, to the best of an amateur's limited abilities, the complicated, eccentric but fascinating depths, to the best of an amateur's ability, of Harry Partch's manifesto, Genesis of a Music, it has proven interesting to read the iconoclastic composer's differentiation between "corporeal" and "abstract" music. 

The former, to Partch's world view, is the truer form of music, emanating from ancient Greek performances in which music, singing in speech-like patterns without embellishment, and dance are inextricable and "corporeal" in terms of the fuller expression of the human body in an environment in which the words matter in concert with the music and the dance.

From the time, however, that church music in medieval Europe began to feature elongated vocalizations and, in Partch's mind, the meaning of the text was sublimated under the desire to emphasize vocal gymnastics and histrionics, the value of corporeal music was overrun by "abstract" music.  The abstraction, further embodied in later periods in ostentatious music and vocal puffery, represents to him a regression and a denigration of the ideal in corporeal music.

As explained further by Partch, the nadir of abstraction in music comes with the modern opera, as well as other forms of music, in which, for example, overwrought emotion and the elaboration of syllables via interminable trilling and other trickeries of the human voice, along with the self-consciousness of the score, overwhelm any sense of meaning in the libretto.

It is an interesting argument and there is a good deal of sense to much of what Partch argues, if one were to believe that what is "legitimate" in music can be based on a determinable logical structure.  To this untutored music lover, though, there is as much of value in a work like Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata from the purely musical (and the vocalizing is, in a way, as much instrumental as the performance by the orchestra) standpoint, regardless of whether the lyrics and the story are understood and appreciated.  Abstraction does not have to be seen as a reduction in musical value, if one enjoys the great technical skill employed in the composition, instrumental performance, and vocalizations.

In fact, Partch's monophonic music based on forty-three semitones or ratios, while fascinating and enjoyable for an entire different set of reasons than La Traviata, can give the impression of being highly abstract (defined in another way from how Partch did) and difficult to listen to.  In other words, Partch thought of corporeal music as being truer to folk music as defined by what the Greeks did in ancient times, but his wonderfully strange music has proven to be far removed from a "folk" or, if you like, "popular" arena and has only been appreciated by a small, if highly appreciative, audience.

In any case, puffery or abstract or whatever, La Traviata is one of the greatest operas ever written and Verdi, who was prolific in composing over two-dozen operas, completed his work in 1853 on the heels of the wildly successful Rigoletto and Il Trovatore.  In this 1973 recording from Japan, released on the budget label Allegro under its "Opera D'Oro" series, the great Renata Scotto is paired with José Carreras, who was just beginning to make his mark in the opera world (long before the notorious Three Tenors project.)  Sesto Bruscantini has a notable opportunity to display his great talent in Act 2's "Di Provenzo il Mar, il Suol."  The orchestra plays beautifully, conducted by Nino Verchi.

Verdi's masterful melodic touch, emotional expression, and superb aligning of the score with the libretto and the vocalizing, is consistently brilliant throughout and Scotto is just breathtaking, while Carreras shows his formidable talent coming to the fore and Bruscantini is exceptional in the company of his colleagues' legendary abilities.

While the basis of the opera on a kind-hearted but tubercular prostitute in the Paris of Verdi's day was unconventional and controversial, its adaptation from Alexander Dumas, Jr.'s La Dame aux Camélias ultimately proved to be beyond the temporary shock of the subject matter (in England, there was no translation or summary to avoid dismay by early Victorian-era audiences there) and La Traviata took its place alongside such masterpieces as La Bohéme and Carmen as the acme of opera in the era.  It did take some reconfiguration of writing for the vocals after a subpar opening at Venice in March 1853 to propel the opera to massive public and critical acclaim.

The story of the doomed lovers Violetta and Alfredo comes to the inevitable tragic end as she succumbs to her disease as Alfredo violently laments her demise.  Verdi's integration of music, singing, story and emotion is staggering and this 40-year old performance is exceptional, even if the recording is not the state-of-the-art kind many listeners expect and/or demand now, though the remastering does a good job of trying to get close to that standard.