Saturday, December 27, 2014

Henry Cowell: A Continuum Portrait, Volume 1

This compendium of wide-ranging works from the long career of composer Henry Cowell is titled based on the excellent performances of the collective called Continuum, which has released several recordings on the Naxos labels over the year.

Cowell, whose Smithsonian Folkways release of his own piano performances has been spotlighted here before, was an experimental composer who drew heavily on folk music, including that of Ireland, where his forebears were from, as well as other places around the world, but was also someone who combined his modernism with beautiful melodies and a strong sense of harmony, too.

These were qualities he shared with his friend, Charles Ives, as the two men, a generation removed from one another, helped usher in a distinctively American form of modern composition.

This record begins with Continuum co-director Joel Sachs performing beautiful solo piano renditions of four piano pieces that feature Cowell's trademark tone clusters and strumming of the instrument's strings along with plaintive melodies (especially on the gorgeous "Deep Color") and interesting explorations of sound, including a wild "Tiger."

A modern take on the Baroque instrumentation of flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord is featured on a quartet composition with the other co-director Cheryl Seltzer on the keyboard instrument.  A highly memorable melody and a fine collective performance by the ensemble are of note.

Humor and satire mark Cowell's "Three Anti-Modernist Songs" with Seltzer on piano and Ellen Lang, an excellent mezzo-soprano.   On "A Sharp Where You'd Expect a Natural," the lyric includes the admonition that "no rule observe but the exceptional" and that when it comes to sequencing the music "which [bar] follows which, you really needn't mind."  

With "Hark! From the Pit a Fearsome Sound," Cowell plays with the concerns of concertgoers unnerved by modern music "that makes your blood run cold" with "symphonic cyclones," a "muted tuba's dismal groan," and fancifully fictional instruments like the "sarrusophone," "tonitruone," and "heckelphone."  There's even a nod to Richard Strauss and his modern form of opera.

Finally, Cowell defends Stravinsky in "Who Wrote This Fiendish 'Rite of Spring'?"  The lyric is written from the perspective of a horrified attendee, presumably at the Paris premiere in 1913, who cries "what right had he to write the thing / against our helpless ears to fling / its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bank, bing?" and asks why the composer couldn't write bird-like melodies and "proper" harmony.

A contemplative and touching violin and piano suite by Seltzer and Mia Wu follows and is beautifully performed, as is a short Polyphonica for a small orchestra.  Finally, there is the Irish Suite, with Seltzer's piano and the orchestra conducted by Sachs performing the piece quietly and subtly.  This is a bit surprising, especially with "The Banshee," which Cowell played on the aforementioned Smithsonian Folkways recording with far greater volume, power and menace, as the strings are scratched and strummed to mimic the mythical banshee creature.

Henry Cowell was a true original, whose ideas of experimenting with sound, harmony and sources were exceptional in his time and remain so today.  This recording by Continuum captures many facets of the composer's long and varied career and the group and Naxos are to be given kudos for excellent work.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Landscape of the Highlands: String Music from Vietnam

This is a beautiful recording, issued as part of the Latitudes series of world music recordings by Music of the World, a North Carolina-based label, of five pieces on the dan tranh, a sixteen-stringed zither, performed by Tran Quang Hai.  Anyone familiar with the Chinese cheng, Japanese koto and Korean kayagum will recognize the beautiful and uplifting resonance of this gorgeous instrument, which also has some resemblance in places to the sound of the western harp, though the movable wooden bridges of nhan give that distinctive eastern "bent" sounds as the bridges are moved to moderate the notes.

Tran Quang Hai plays with emotion, sensitivity and virtuosity on the songs, the shortest of which is four minutes, while the others are roughly eight and nine minutes in length.  He makes great use of space, allowing the atmospheric nature of the instrument develop an environment that enhances the rich sound it can produce.  At the same time, he can utilize his prodigious technical abilities to hypnotize the listener with the cascades of ringing tones that the zither provides.

Tran Quang Hai is the fifth generation of musicians in his family and went to Vietnam's National Conservatory of Music in Saigon as well as studied with his academically-affiliated father.  In 1961, with his country in growing turmoil, he moved to France, which was the colonizer of Vietnam for decades before the French were defeated by Viet Cong forces in the mid-Fifties.  Expert on more than a dozen Vietnamese instruments, he has had a wide-ranging career composing, performing, writing and even acting and is still very busy as he moves into his seventies.

Landscape of the Highlands is a gorgeous recording, sure to please those who enjoy Asian music and, hopefully, one to entrance anyone seeking an entry to one aspect, string music, of this part of the world.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Sonny Rollins: A Night at the Village Vanguard (Complete)

As a composer of some of the best-known hard bop tunes of the middle and later 1950s and, especially, as an improviser with immense technical skill and creatively fresh approaches to harmony and melody, Sonny Rollins was in a class all by himself.  From his early work with such luminaries as Thelonious Monk, Max Roach and Miles Davis, to his first solo records, including the 1956 album Saxophone Colossus and the amazing Way Out West and then his courageous Freedom Suite, Rollins created one of the great bodies of work of the era.

For a variety of personal and professional reasons, Rollins quite suddenly withdrew from the scene in the early 1960s and was never quite the same in terms of recognition and accolades, compared to, say, John Coltrane, perhaps because jazz transformed so radically during that decade.  Yet, all these years later, the master is still very active, regularly touring and recording, generally to much acclaim.

But, if jazz is largely built on the framework of what is experienced in the live setting, then Rollins' 1957 recording of sets at the famed Village Vanguard club in New York, his first as a leader, really set a standard for how concert performances were to be recorded and regarded.  The first track featured the little-known Donald Bailey on bass and the somewhat under-appreciated drummer Pete La Roca (who worked with Coltrane for a time) and is an interesting version of the great bebop standard, "A Night in Tunisia."

But, with the tremendous rhythm section of bassist Wilbur Ware (known for his work with Monk) and drummer Elvin Jones, who really got his first serious attention as a result of this gig and went on to be Coltrane's poly-rhythmic dynamo, this album really took off.

With the complete two-disc version, released by Blue Note in 1999, a total of eighteen pieces showcase the greatness of this small combo, as Ware and Jones were supremely effective sidemen and Rollins came into his own as an improviser of amazing facility and invention (as well as a charming host introducing some of the songs in the coolest way possible.)

Highlights are so numerous, it's hard to pinpoint some over others, whether it is the evening take of "A Night in Tunisia," the excellent "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," the surprising use of the old chestnut, "Get Happy," Miles Davis' "Four," Rollins' own masterpiece, "Sonnymoon for Two," or other standards like "I Can't Get Started," Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," or Hammerstein and Kern's "All the Things You Are."

It's amazing to hear Rollins work his way through complex, powerful, inventive and alternately humorous and clever and then heartbreaking and serious soloing with what seems to be the most effortless ways imaginable.

Then, to have the solidly reliable and pliable Ware and the emerging force of nature that Elvin Jones was on his way to becoming as his bedrock, it's no small wonder that A Night at the Village Vanguard, presented here in the original sequence and with the leader's intros, is one of the great live recordings of jazz and a signal achievement for Rollins, one of its greatest musicians.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cabaret Voltaire: 2x45

In 1981, Cabaret Voltaire was on the verge of a sea change.  For seven years, the trio of Chris Watson, Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk had honed their unusual sounds of manipulated and processed sound and developed something of a cult underground following from their signing to Rough Trade Records in 1978.  This yielded a series of EPs and albums that included such early classic pieces as "Nag Nag Nag," "Do The Mussolini (Headkick)," and other otherworldly electronic works that placed them in a category all their own.

Yet, there was a feeling among the members that new directions were needed.  For Watson, this had more to do with a change in occupation, as he was hired as a sound recordist for a British television network and then later went on to do notable work recording natural environments for the BBC, as well as working in the highly-esoteric band/project, The Hafler Trio.  In more recent years, Watson, as has been covered once her, has released a series of fascinating albums, largely based on his years of nature recordings, and which challenge established definitions of what music is.

As for Kirk and Mallinder, Watson's departure gave them an opportunity for reinvention of the Cabaret Voltaire sonic pallette.  To those fans who loved the early music, their move to strip down the sound, develop more defined melodic and rhythmic ideas, and engage in less manipulation and processing of instrumentation and vocals amounted to nothing less than a commercial sell-out.

On the other hand, asking creative artists to stop growing and challenging themselves is just not realistic.  Mallinder and Kirk clearly felt they had done what they could with their earlier sound and that it was time to chart different territory.  Their first efforts, however, were transitional and are documented in the remarkable 2x45, which title speaks for itself.

Six pieces originally released on two 45 rpm discs, hence the album title, include one set done with Watson and the other with Kirk and Mallinder joined by guest musicians.  On the first trio of tracks, recorded in October 1981, the group is augmented with drummer and percussionist Alan Fish, of the group "Hula" who also toured with Kirk and Mallinder when they became a duo in 1982.  These songs include "Breathe Deep," "Yashar," and "Protection." with familiar attributes like the harsh processed vocals of Mallinder, the vox continental of Watson and the processed horns and simple spiky guitar of Kirk joined by a stronger percussive presence from Fish.

"Yashar," which was remixed into something of an underground dance hit, is tamer and more subdued on the album version, but it does contain the memorable sample from a 1950s sci-fi film asking where the 70 billion people on Earth were hiding.  The metallic percussion, Middle Eastern synth lines, and catchy bass line from Mallinder are the hallmarks of this tune.

"Protection" puts an emphasis on Kirk's squawking clarinet work, interesting vocal samples, and Mallinder's trademark menacing echoed vocals, as well as a swirl of sound effects and steady percussion from Fish.

The big change comes with the second trio of tracks, which were cut in February 1982, and featured drummer Nort and guitarist Eric Random.  "War of Nerves (T.E.S.)" starts off with a sampled explanation of a horrific form of torture, complete with the nauseated reaction of the listener on the sample, before the band moves into a relaxed and, yes, even funky groove.  Then comes another of Mallinder's disembodied and processed vocals, as more vocal samples abound and Kirk and Random offer interesting guitar textures.  This is kind of a spooky, trippy tune for a band with lots of them.

"Wait and Shuffle" begins with a strange processed vocal sample and an echoed synth form before Mallinder's two forms of simple, repetitive bass are joined by Nort's effective drumming and washes of wild guitar lines, Kir's tortured horn work, and sampled sounds complete the interesting textures.

But, the album's most interesting track is the lengthy "Get Out of My Face,"which has a hypnotic synth intro with military-like sample shouting before Mallinder comes in with one of his better bass figures and the guitars again provide notable and varied expressive textures.  Mallinder's vocals are less menacing and more whispered, though offered with plenty of echo.  The opening synth undercurrent continues, with some of an arpeggio joining in early on and more sax wailing found throughout.

There is a complexity in layering sounds on this track and the other two from the early '82 session that provide a signpost for where CV would be going, albeit in a funkier, more groove-oriented direction by the time The Crackdown was recorded in 1983 after a new deal was signed with Virgin Records and the band left Rough Trade.

2x45 is clearly a transitional record for Cabaret Voltaire, but despite the shift in personnel and the expected variances in sound, it comes across rather well as a single listening experience and was an honest attempt by Kirk and Mallinder to confront the transformation after Watson's departure.  And, they lost no time, as they moved into a phase through 1985 that saw them release some of their most interesting music, albeit to the concern of the fans of their earlier, rougher sound.

But, a change had to come and, to this longtime listener, it was a necessary and successful one.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra/Don Juan/Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche

In his long life of eighty-five years, Richard Strauss worked his way through a strong Romantic influence inspired largely by Richard Wagner, but also composed works that had a pronounced "modern" sensibility, as exemplified by operas like Der Rosenkavalier, Salome and Ariadne Aux Naxos.

Strauss was enough of a modernist to incur the suspicions of Nazi leaders, even as the composer tried to use his international stature to champion his vision of music after the Third Reich was established in 1933.  While he never left Germany, Strauss was increasingly alienated from the Hitler regime while trying to keep his Jewish daughter-in-law and his son out of concentration camps.  He managed to survive the end of World War II by four years and composed his last works in that horrible turmoil.

In his earlier years, however, Strauss developed some remarkable "tone poems" that, on this recording by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, drew inspiration from works by Friedrich Nietzsche (Also Sprach Zarathustra) and Nikolaus Lenau (an unfinished poem being the basis for Strauss' Don Juan) as well as the German folk tale of Till Eulenspiegel, which included comic elements that Straus reflected in his music.

Also Sprach Zarathustra has become famous for its opening theme reflecting the Persian poet, Zarathustra, arising to meet and talk to the sun and which was memorably utilized in Stanley Kubrick's path-breaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There's no question that this is a stirring, striking and awe-inspiring opening, though less than two minutes long.  The rest of the piece, however, is full of richness, complexity, contemplative melodies and powerful bombastic themes.  It is a powerful work from a master composer, who was still a young man of 32 when the work was finished in 1896

Don Juan was completed even earlier, in 1888, and established Strauss' reputation when it premiered in late 1889 in Weimar.  It was based on an 1844 poem from Lenau and concerns the end of the mythical lover's life when, thwarted in his aim to find the ideal woman, he decides to will his death.  This is another work of great complexity requiring superior technical facility for the instrumentation over the course of just under seventeen minutes.

Finally, there is Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche (Till Eugenspiel's Merry Pranks) a work from 1894-95, extending about 14 1/2 minutes and concerning quite a different type of legendary figure, one steeped in German folklore, though based on a real person, and possessing a comic and mischievous persona that fought against repressive authority figures, be they political or religious.  The music, comprised of themes for horn and clarinet, reflects a more playful and breezy style of performance than the other tone poems in this set.

This is another well-performed recording from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, in England and the quality of the recording is excellent.  The disc reflects the developing composer's efforts at building from the Romantic tradition but using newer compositional materials to provide a modern sound.  Future posts will cover some of Strauss' excellent operas.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fiestas: Music of the High Andes

There is still a strong connection of the mixed peoples of the upper Andes Mountains of Peru to their pre-European heritage, though there is obviously a major admixture of the native culture with that of the Spanish who suddenly and violently conquered the Inca Empire in the early 16th-century.

The album Fiestas: Music of the High Andes is another in the admirable series of indigenous world music recordings issued by the Nonesuch Explorer Series in 1972, but recorded in June and July 1968 by David Lewiston, who gathered so much great music from around the world for the series.  It features a variety of festive public music in the major city of Ayacucho and the smaller villages of Vilcas Plazapi and Chuschi.

Several of the pieces have vocals in the native Quechua language and performances include such instrumentation as mandolins, guitars, quenas (notched flutes), harps, charangos (stringed lutes), and ensembles using brass pieces, drums, among others--some of these native and others from the Spanish.  There are Catholic religious events, such as the Feast of Corpus Christi, featured as well as community celebrations like the Paucartambo that provide the settings for much of the music on the album.

The playing is often spirited and joyous, sometimes very reflective and beautiful and always inspiring, especially from a people living in somewhat remote circumstances, removed from the urban areas of Lima and other Peruvian cities.  One wonders how much the music has changed in the nearly half-century since the recording and whether vestiges of the pre-European heritage are as strong now.

In any case, this is a great disc to listen to for the appreciation of a society and a people who live in one of the most amazing places in the world. It gives an opportunity to vicariously remove oneself from the environment in which they've become accustomed and have some sense of how differently others live, through their very particularized music--music which entertains and educates.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Andrew Hill: Judgment!

A very under-appreciated pianist and composer, Andrew Hill released a string of excellent recordings for Blue Note in the mid to late 1960s, one of which, the superb Point of Departure has already been highlighted here.

Judgment! was recorded just prior to that album, in early January 1964, and, while it may be more low key, due to the absence of a front-line horn and the use of a vibraphone as a featured solo album, this recording is just as remarkable in highlighting Hill's distinctive composing style, uniformly excellent playing and the amazing band chosen for the album.

It's hard to imagine a better rhythm section at the time than the always-steady and full-sounding bass of the great Richard Davis, another player who has never quite received the recognition he deserves, and the exciting and complex poly-rhythms of the masterful Elvin Jones on drums.

Moreover, in a significant way, the tremendous performance by Bobby Hutcherson on vibes is an additional rhythmic instrument, due to the light percussive sound it provides.  Hutcherson, though, also used his instrument for ambiance and was a masterful soloist, as well.

Hill's composing wasn't known for extremes in ways that other so-called "free" or "avant-garde" stalwarts were, but his subtle experiments with time, harmony and rhythm are, with some dedicated listening, obvious and stunning.

This comes to the fore immediately with the standout "Siete Ocho," a nine-minute masterpiece, the title of which happens to refer to the time signature of 7/8.  The playing is just impressive, starting with Hutcherson's vibes and including Hill's always-absorbing solo work as well as a nice short solo by Davis and a typically explosive excursion on the traps by Jones.

"Flea Flop" was titled by Hill because of the "jumping flea" quality of the melody and has a long and exemplary solo by the leader, some powerful soloing by Jones and Hutcherson's shimmering and echoed vibes providing a strong grounding for the piece.

"Senseless dialogue between people" is how the sing-song melody of "Yokada Yokada" is characterized in its dissonant dueting between the vibes and piano, before Hill unleashes another incredibly understated and brilliant solo that is more directly blues-connected than usual for the leader.

A tribute to the founder and long-time executive of Blue Note, Alfred Lion, "Alfred" is a lush, lyrical and gorgeous ballad that gives Hutcherson an opportunity to shine in soloing and atmospheric accompaniment, while Davis plays beautifully in the upper register and Jones, who was not given as much praise for his brush work as he should have, provides excellent support work on percussion.  As for Hill, his playing is as lyrical and economical as can be.

The title track was inspired by a poem by Hill's wife, Laverne, based on the biblical verse, John 7: 7, which has the famous admonition about casting stones.  The tune starts with some emphatic snare shots by Jones, who then slides effortlessly into a driving groove that was one of his many trademarks, while the band moves into a typically angular Hill theme.  It's hard to overstate just how fluidly and compactly Hill constructs his solos-he's never flashy, but his technique and ideas are highly advanced.  Again, Davis alternates between higher and lower notes and always seems to be in just the right spot to hold the bottom down, while Jones keeps those poly rhythms moving before putting on another drum solo clinic.  Hutcherson offers another great solo before the track ends--this along with "Siete Ocho" is a centerpiece to the album.

Finally, there is the closing "Reconciliation," which Hill identified as being drawn from the unity and harmony developed by the group in the course of creating this amazing music.  Another interesting and characteristically complex Hill theme is played three times before Davis solos to great effect, demonstrating why he was so in demand, as Hutcherson and Jones engage in excellent interplay behind the bassist.  A notable quality to this tune is the abrupt ending before the theme's last note was to be played.

The mid-90s release on CD also features a fine alternate take of "Yokada Yokada."

Judgment! is a true classic, featuring excellent writing and playing by Hill and amazing support from a special band playing at top form and thriving on the structures and environment given them by the leader.  Point of Departure had the benefit of featuring the great Eric Dolphy, but Judgment! as a more intimate record is, in some ways, more unified and consistent in its conception and playing.  It is a highlight of Hill's extensive discography and one of the great jazz records of its time.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Orbital: The Brown Album (Orbital 2)

Following about a year-and-a-half after their debut record, Phil and Paul Hartnoll took the momentum of their early work and applied a more developed, varied and complex palette of electronic sounds, samples, beats and other audio treasures to create the amazing 1993 release, generally known as the Brown Album, but titled Orbital 2 in the U.S.

Decidedly experimental sensibilities abound on this record, starting with the looped sample "Time Becomes" and the cool scratchy vinyl intonation of "Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day" that opens the expansive "Planet of the Shapes", which includes a tambura-like drone along other notable elements.

A definite favorite is "Lush 3-1" and its companion "Lush 3-2" that has a catchy and yet somewhat mournful melodic sensibility along with its varied percussive touches and upbeat rhythmic mix. On "3-2", an echoey female vocal provides a notable touch.

"Impact (The Earth is Burning)" is another lengthy (the first three tracks average about ten minutes) excursion into a highly-developed sonic package and has another favorite melodic theme on keyboards intertwined with what almost sounds like electronically-processed bagpipes.  There is also a driving bassline that blends flawlessly with the generated percussion and catchy and simple keyboard touches, as well.  A strange breathy vocal that utters something that may be wordless is also a recognizable part of the piece.  About 7 1/2 minutes in, a stuttering vocal sample puts the title in context as the man talks about "a cry for survival . . . for mankind and for us" indicating that there was an environmentalist message to the tune (something Orbital occasionally highlighted in its career, including on its mesmerizing "In Sides" album).

"Remind" has an acid-house feel to it after the trippy opening section and is a highly-hypnotic song as it develops through its eight-minute length, offering all manner of interesting sounds along with the driving percussion and rhythms.

The opening to "Walk Now . . ." has an eerie, ominous loop of sounds before the driving beats ensue and featuring something of an echoed two-note repetition that is another Orbital hallmark.  There are breaks using more interesting percussion and keyboard effects before the rhythms return to propel the piece along.  About three and a half minutes in a propulsive bassline enters to link with the percussion.

"Monday" has another memorable opening sample, sounding like something taken from a 60s soul record and a blend of keyboard sounds that give way to pure percussion and bass for a period before the sample returns.  The track changes subtly in its mix of elements, introducing new sounds periodically, such as a horn-like tone at 4:30 or so and which continues until the end completes a cycle with that opening sample.

One of Orbital's greatest songs is the majestic "Halcyon + On + On" which opens with a dreamy and soothing melange of warm electronic sound and piano-like tones.  A gorgeous, crystalline female voice wordlessly sings above another highly memorable bassline and guitar-like sounds and then the voice is joined by another female vocal for a short period before the bassline and percussion take over for a time.  Then the intertwined voices return and are manipulated with echo and other effects throughout the piece to create interesting variations.

Finally, these beautiful voices take the piece out and lead to "Input Out," another sampling of a voice uttering the words "input translation," while the sample is manipulated in a way somewhat reminiscent of the early experiments of Steve Reich from the mid-1960s, for those familiar with his work.

The Brown Album was a real advance in terms of structure, more varied uses of electronic and digital elements and in broadening the range of sound further from what was presented on The Green Album.  This process of growth set Orbital apart from just about any electronic act of the era, excepting perhaps stalwarts like Richard H. Kirk, The Orb and a very few others.

Subsequent albums chronicled this growth in exciting and innovative ways, including Snivilization, In Sides, The Altogether, and Middle of Nowhere.  Notably, Orbital was a rarity in the electronic scene, in that their live performances were well-received and put the band on a platform more like a rock act because of their special sonic qualities and presentation.

In many ways, The Brown Album was a marked step of growth and evolution for a band emerging from the heady days of the late 80s and early 90s heyday of electronica and creating a body of work built for the long haul--something few of Orbital's peers could claim.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas

Any appreciable amount of time spent listening to Mozart is an awe-inspiring experience considering how short a time he lived, the amount of varied music he wrote, and the fact that, as the notes to this great box-set indicate, "Mozart had little or not need to write down sonatas: he improvised them, making an impression on his audience on the spur of the moment . . . [he] only wrote down what he had to."  Obviously, he was a total prodigy--a performer and composer whose gifts come only on the rarest of occasions--and much of what made him such a legend in 18th-century music circles was done for the moment and then lost.

There were, in all, twenty-two sonatas by the master for solo performance on the keyboard, the four earliest, starting from when Mozart was ten years old, having been lost, leaving eighteen.  The last of the sonatas came in July 1789, a little over two years before the composer died.  This set, released in 1996 by the British Nimbus label and totaling a little over six hours on as many discs, is performed by the excellent Bulgarian-born Marta Deyanova.  The recordings were largely made in 1989 and 1990, with one track laid down in 1995 and the sound is superb.

The notes by David Threasher compactly and succinctly discuss the eighteen sonatas and a nice touch are quotes from letters written by Mozart to his father Leopold.  One of these is from 1777, in which the 21-year old informed his father that "I played all my six sonatas today" and then quoted from a Count Savioli who told Mozart that "I hear that you play the clavier [a precursor to the modern piano] quite passably."  The composer then merely stated that, "I bowed."  These six works came from two years prior to the letter.

Threasher pointed out that Mozart's earliest piano sonatas were influenced by a set of six sonatas published in 1774 by the great Franz Josef Haydn, although he also noted that Mozart's improvisatory powers were dominant in at least the first of the sextet.

In a letter to his father written four days later than the one quoted above, Mozart wrote that he had just composed a rondo for a sonata, this being a Sonata in C Major and for which he had totally improvised a rondo "full of din and sound" a few weeks prior.  This work was dedicated to a young pupil, Rose Cannabich, with a pretty andante which may have reflected strong feelings the composer had to his charge.  His next set of sonatas came, then, in 1777-78, during which time Mozart experienced difficulties working in Paris, where he was underappreciated and in which his mother died during a visit to him.

A few sonatas were written in 1783, just after his marriage to Constanze Weber and while the pair were living in Salzburg with his father.  Threasher wrote that "Mozart was aware that he would need a fund of new music for the purposes of performance, pedagogy and perhaps publication, and composed these three sonatas to fill such a need."  One of these, in A major, is among the composer's most-beloved pieces, featuring the stunning Rondo alla Turca finale.

Further works came later in 1783 and during the following year, including the famed C minor sonata and a stand-alone fantasia in that key that usually proceeds the other in performance.  This fantasia, even amongst the greatness of the other solo piano works, astounds with its jaw-dropping technicality and its beauty.

Finally, a quartet of sonatas came in 1788 and 1789 and characteristically at least one of these, the F major was written to pay off one of his chronic debts--in this case to his publisher.   Another, a C major, was intended for teaching and bore the title "Little Sonata for Beginners."  The final two, coming in 1789, remained unpublished until after Mozart's death and one, a B flat, appeared as a work for piano and violin, with the latter assumed not to have been the master's work.

As to Deyanova, who has recorded many albums of piano music for Nimbus, including works by Schubert, Scriabin, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, she was a prize-winning performer as a child in her homeland and then won international competitions in Italy, Paris and in Sofia.  After a 1969 prize-winning performance, Yehudi Mehunin wrote that "I wish Marta Deyanova the international career she so richly deserves."  Fortunately, that did happen, as she has toured the world over and, from 1978, recorded her extensive solo piano work for Nimbus.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Anthology of World Music: The Music of Pakistan

Another installment in Rounder Records' reissuing of fifty fantastic albums from around the world collected by Alain Danielou for this International Institute for Comparative Music Studies and Documentation and released on vinyl between 1968 and 1987, this album features the magic sitar playing of Mohammad Sharif Khan.

The pieces consist of two longer ragas, the "Nur Gharii" of almost 24 minutes in length and the "Darbari" of 18 1/2 minutes in duration and a shorter collection of improvisations based on Punjabi folk songs lasting about ten minutes.

Unfortunately, there is no listing of either the tabla or tambura players who accompany Khan, but the sitarist is unbelievable.  As typically found, the pieces start slowly and contemplatively, with Khan introducing themes and then improvising off them, while building tension and intensity as the rhythms and tempos get stronger.  His deft, rapid runs are played flawlessly as the pieces develop and it is really a treat to hear this master develop his playing.  The unidentified accompanists also do their parts extremely well, making these three performances real gems.

As the liner notes explain, there is no fundamental differences between northern Indian and Pakistani classical music, other than the styles employed by the various gharanas or schools.  Of course, there wasn't a Pakistan, until the Muslim state was created out of the ashes of the British empire in the Indian subcontinent.  What Danielou explained, however, is that, unlike in India, the musicians in Pakistan have not received anywhere near the support for their art.

A newspaper article from the Pakistani Friday Times in 2011 made an interesting comparison between Khan and the great Ravi Shankar, noting that Khan had a "subtler, more sinuous" manner of performance opposed to Shankar's sarod-like playing (the sarod is another stringed instrument, which Shankar's one-time brother-in-law, the amazing Ali Akbar Khan mastered--and an album with Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan has been featured on this blog.)

Notably, the article also pointed out that Mohammad Sharif Khan and Shankar performed together at a 1971 concert in Bombay, in which "these differences were brought to the fore" over the course of the 4-hour (yes, 4 hour!) performance.  One wonders if this was recorded and, if so, released, because it must've been a remarkable concert.

The Anthology of World Music series is a great one, full of interesting and satisfying traditional world music performances, and this installment, with Khan's impeccable playing, is a highlight.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Henry Threadgill: You Know the Number

This 1986 release on RCA's Novus imprint displays some impressive composing by the great Henry Threadgill, excellent playing by his diverse sextet, and fine production making for a beautifully-sounding record.

"Bermuda Blues" features great bass and cello work by Fred Hopkins and Deidre Murray, respectively, and a nice blend of brass with the leader, trumpeter Rasul Sadik and trombonist Frank Lacy performing with a highly-developed sense of interplay as well as solid soloing.

Hopkins starts off with a contemplative bass solo on "Silver and Gold Baby, Silver and Gold," before the others join in on this complex ballad.  Also notable throughout the album is how the percussion is recorded with Pheeroan Aklaff on the left channel and Reggie Nicholson on the right.  On this tune, Threadgill's piercing, keening solo stands out--very much in his style of playing and always affecting.

The opening of "Theme for Thomas Cole" has that peculiar attribute of Threadgill's arrangement of instrumentation, with the trombone, muted trumpet and alto marking out a complex and unusual theme statement, before Lacy solos with a cymbal and bass accompaniment.  Then, the ensemble comes back in with a striking way of various brass soloing.

"Good Times" is as catchy and accessible a tune as can be found in Threadgill's discography, a truly uplifting tune with all of that remarkable harmonic interplay that is endemic to the work.  The leader's gritty alto work stands out once again amidst all of the sonic expression that is also characteristic of his music.  There is also some good drum soloing and a crazy trombone solo from the remarkable Lacy, giving some spotlight to an instrument not heard much in modern jazz.

"To Be Announced" has a cool percussive opening, bass line, and a captivating brass harmony to open the piece.  Complex, yet highly listenable as that rhythm keeps things hopping while Lacy bursts into another fine solo--he proves to be the biggest surprise on this album, though Sadik's playing is also of note.

"Paille Street" sounds like it could have come from a classic movie soundtrack when it opens, perhaps because of Murray's beautiful cello playing and the muted brass accompaniment behind her.  Hopkins also plays a beautiful, rich bass to hold down the bottom, while the percussion mainly utilizes brush for a light touch.  This piece is really pretty--one of the nicer ballads in Threadgill's catalog.

Threadgill is known for peculiar titling, perhaps because naming instrumental pieces is an exercise in futility, especially when the music is this complex, dense and striking.  So, "For Those Who Eat Cookies" may not signify much, but check out that amazing interplay among the brass while the rhythm section lays it down nicely behind them.  Threadgill, who gave a lot of space to his fellow musicians to create uniformly excellent solos, staggers again with his amazing alto work, while that interplay continues to be essential to the quality of this piece and the record as a whole.

The follow-up to this record, 1989's Rag, Bush and All and the 1993 album, Too Much Sugar for a Dime may be Threadgill's high-water marks in his long, estimable discography, but You Know the Number is right up there and, if the number was 3 in ranking of his many superb recordings, that's fine company to be in.  This is a great album.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

King Crimson: Larks' Tongues in Aspic

As pointed out before, thirty years ago this blogger was invited to go to a King Crimson performance and promptly and flatly turned it down because of a disgust about the perceived nature of "prog."  A sampling of borrowed albums from the patient friend revealed that the band had evolved considerably from its early days and was worth giving a shot.  And, what a show that was, though Crimson broke up about a month or so later.

When a rediscovery of KC happened five years ago (a whole quarter century later), it was just after a planned 40th anniversary itinerary was scratched due to a misunderstanding over schedules between Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew.  A couple of years later, Fripp announced his retirement from public performance and a resurgence of King Crimson seemed to be more and more unlikely.

However, once Fripp won a settlement over royalties with Universal Music Group and completed a long-developing book project, as well as other significant changes in his working life, a surprise announcement was made a year ago:  King Crimson was returning to "active service" via a tour of the U.S. this fall.

Last night, this blogger attended the second of two shows at the beautiful historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles and what an experience it was.  It took about a third of the show to get fully acclimated to the three-drummer front line and the sheer mass, density and intensity of the sound generated by the stellar crew of Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison.  It also took that time to be able to recalibrate listening so that the amazing reed work of Mel Collins could be truly appreciated, as well as Fripp's always impressive guitar work.

A friend who had little exposure (pardon the unintended pun for those of you who know RF's solo career) to Crimson was thunderstruck by the drummers and the sound, but felt that the vocals were not measuring up to the immense power of the instrumental performances.  This listener felt that Jakko Jakszyk did a very good job of playing with his cool screaming schizoid man decorated guitar (and even a little flute in a duet with Collins) and his singing was good overall.

All-in-all, a powerful, involving and memorable show from a band that always strives for something different, unusual and affecting to its audience.

Which leads to the featured album . . .  The plan was to focus next on 1995's Thrak, an album with a double trio (guitars, basses and drums) that took KC into a new era of power, innovation and excellent songcraft.

But, given that last night's show featured a decided focus on the band's earlier output and that this blogger's return to the fold started with this album, this post looks at 1973's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (a title which might appear ponderously pompous in the prog tradition, especially given where bands like Yes and ELP were going in that era--yet, the title was an off-the-cuff joke from percussionist Jamie Muir that the band found funny enough to adopt.)

The band had been together only a few months after the Islands-era band of 1971-72 finished a tour of America and disbanded.  Fripp first made contact with Muir, a veteran of England's free jazz scene who quickly became a character known for his bearskin clothing and habit of biting into capsules of red food coloring to simulate blood while he prowled the stage, making strange grimaces and bashing out percussion on a standard drum kit and and what was referred to in the liners of LTIA as "allsorts," meaning bongos, metal sheets, bells, whistles and other assorted items.

He then met with Bill Bruford, who was ready to leave Yes, just as that band finished its most popular and acclaimed album, Close to the Edge, and before that group embarked on what became the oft-maligned double album, Tales from Topographic Oceans.  Bruford had admired Crimson's experimental, improvisational and innovative approaches and was looking for a new venue for his interests and talents.

Violinist David Cross was observed playing a gig and, attracted to the idea of providing a "light" counterweight to the heaviness embodied in electric instruments and the Crimson way of playing, Fripp invited the unknown Cross to join the group.

Finally, there was John Wetton, an acquaintance of long standing with Fripp, who was quickly gaining recognition for his strong sound and nimble, inventive playing on the bass, but who also sang and wrote his own material in concert with former Supertramp member Richard Palmer-James.  Wetton was ready to leave Family, a band that had achieved some success in the U.K., but with which Wetton was increasingly feeling out of place.

The quintet came together in the summer of 1972 and quickly found improvisation to be a driving force for the group, while also trying out several songs, most of which later appeared on the trio of releases issued in the next two years.

King Crimson also performed mostly-improvised concerts in Europe and the U.K. through the fall and then, on New Year's Day 1973, convened in a London studio (which lacked some of the necessities for good recording, like an experienced engineer) and made this remarkable record.  Whatever was problematic in sound quality and editing was made up for in terms of the amazing mix of sounds, instrumentation, and performance that resulted.

It's hard to imagine any other major (or minor) rock group in 1973 having the audacity to begin the album with the Africans-style percussion and avant garde sounds that opened "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One," though the mighty crunching riffs that developed during the long track certainly pushed things into very heavy territory, while alternating with Cross's delicate, but well-played violin work.

Following a tradition of delicate ballads came "Book of Saturday," which is a fine tune that could be considered kin to "Cadence and Cascade" and "I Talk to the Wind" from earlier albums.  "Exiles" has a little connection probably to "Epitaph" in the sense that it is a lament of sorts--this one about the trials of being in a rock band--and the next album actually has a song titled "Lament."  It also has a similar quality of a sweeping, majestic instrumental sound with a fine vocal by Wetton.

"Easy Money" has heavy bells, sampled voices and laughter, some undefinable scraping songs and other unusual touches, but it is also (excepting "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part 2") the most popular of the songs on this record and the one most likely to have been "radio friendly," if such a term could be applied to Crimson.

But, to this listener, the real gem of this record is "The Talking Drum," which starts off with soft percussion by Muir and then gradually and slowly leads into an extended violin solo by Cross with a menacing (perhaps) drone established by Fripp, while Wetton's performs a hypnotic repetitive bass line and Bruford comes in with a drum beat that holds everything down.  As the tension builds, it is finally resoundingly released as Wetton fattens the bassline with a huge fuzzy sound and Bruford pounds more insistently on the drums.  Then, Fripp unleashes a long guitar solo that emphasizes sound in a way that seems vaguely Middle Eastern with lots of tremolo and sustain that is unlike anything heard with rock guitar.

It was "The Talking Drum" that, when heard in Fall 2009, sparked this blogger's reevaluation of Crimson and what became a determined effort to hear as much of this amazing band's music as possible in subsequent months and years.

After a frenzied finish that seems to mimic wailing, the segue to "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part 2" which has become one of the centerpieces of the KC catalog, mixing intensity and softness, prototypical Frippian riffs and a dizzyingly fast, sensationally loud and cathartic conclusion to an album that may not be unified enough for some, but provides a variety, experimentalism, and juxtaposition of heavy and soft sounds that mark this as a really unusual rock record for its time--in fact, it doesn't really sound dated, because it doesn't play like an album of that era.  It almost is of its own era.

As for King Crimson's next steps, some were promoting this tour as a farewell, though its subtitle is "past, present and future," so, presumably, there may be more life in the band yet.  Let's hope so, because, based on last night's electrifying performance, there could be many more interesting musical places this band could go and there are enough who are ready and willing to go along for the ride.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Arkology

For several years in reggae's 1970s heyday, there was no producer more eccentric, creative and successful than Lee "Scratch" Perry, who worked his magic in a rudimentary studio known as the Black Ark. 

With space at a premium and with a set-up that was basic, maybe primitive, Perry used his prodigious talent for spotting quality songs and performers with an uncanny ability to coax the strangest sounds from his equipment and a combination of found materials and the voices of musicians and singers he worked with.  The lowing of a cow, the cry of a baby and other sounds were developed in this simple studio environment.

Arkology is a masterful three-disc set of fifty-two tracks from Island Jamaica that has a wealth of famous and lesser-known pieces, many paired with dub versions, that form the core of some of the best of what reggae had to offer during its zenith. 

In addition to the house band, The Upsetters, which variously featured such instrumental heavy-hitters as the great Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, on drum and bass, there were also bassists Boris Gardiner and Winston Wright, drummers Mikey Richards and Benbow Creary, guitarists Chinna Smith, Geoffrey Chung, Willy Lindo and Ernest Ranglin, among others; organist Robbie Lyn; melodica player Augustus Pablo, percussionists Skully Simms and Sticky Thompson, trumpeters Bobby Ellis and David Madden, trombonist Vin Gordon, sax players Richard Hall and Glen DaCosta and flautist Egbert Evans. 

Among the singers are The Heptones, Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, The Meditations, The congos, Mikey Dread and Perry's deep-toned toasting, with some of little-known performers like Errol Waler, Devon Irons, Raphael Green, and Enos Barnes turning in fine performances, as well.

Of the best-known songs, there are a raft of great tracks, including Romeo's "War Inna Babylon;" "One Step Forward;" "Chase the Devil;" and "Norman;" Murvin's "Police and Thieves;" The Meditations' "Much Smarter" and "No Peace;" The Heptones' "Sufferer's Time;" The Congos' "Congoman;" and Perry's own "Roast Fish and Corn Bread;" "Dub Revolution;" and "Party Time."

But, it's often the lesser-known tracks that are the most revealing, including Walker's "In These Times" and "John Public;" "Rasta Train" from Raphael Green and Dr. Alimantado; "Mr. President" from The Heptones and Jah Lion; and Devin Irons' "Vampire."

Finally, all the great dub versions from The Upsetters highlight the deep grooves generated by the musicians and the trippy sound effects concocted by Perry at his best.  It's been easy to play these three discs repeatedly and not tire of the contents, because of the variety in singers, excellent songs, and Perry's amazing dub concoctions.

Sadly, Perry was getting hassled for protection money, dealing with growing competition, and generally feeling greater pressure, which took its toll on his already-eccentric personality and mental state.  Black Ark was already colorfully decorated with record sleeve, 45 rpm records, photos  and all manner of memorabilia, but Perry then covered every inch of the walls with rambling statements and other writings before the studio suddenly burned to the ground in 1979.  There were denials from Perry that he torched the facility deliberately, but later he became more forthcoming.

He left the country and now lives in Switzerland with his Swiss wife and his children and has continued to make music, though mainly as a performer rather than a producer (and all the logistical and business issues that entails.) 

A couple of years ago, ubiquitous producer Bill Laswell, a huge fan of Perry and dub generally, produced "Rise Again," a highly-praised Perry album on Laswell's M.O.D. Technologies label. 

At 78, Perry is still performing and, though, it's been about 40 years since his peak years at Black Ark, this music lives on as a testimony to some of the best reggae ever committed to tape.  Long may Scratch's music be heard!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Philip Glass: Heroes Symphony/The Light

Philip Glass has referred to his music as being about "repetitive structures" than so-called "minimalism" and he certainly found an apt descriptive genre title.  Glass was the son of a Lithuanian-born record store owner and heard much modern music early on and traveled in Paris as a young man before entering Julliard, where a classmate was "minimalist" icon Steve Reich.  He studied briefly with Darius Milhaud and then studied under a fellowship with noted composition teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the mid-1960s.  A period of travel in India and Tibet and study in Buddhism and the music of that part of the world had a profound influence in his work.

Simple structures in the emerging "minimalist" scene in New York in the late 1960s characterized Glass' early work and his involvement with Reich was notable, though, by 1970, he began to move into richer sonic territory and broke from his partnership with Reich.  Developing stronger harmonic relationships along with his rhythmic interests, Glass spent much of the 1970s and 1980s working in musical theater, composing some of his best-known works like "Einstein on the Beach" and "Akhnaten" and film scores.  He also created an opera, "Satyagraha," based on such figures as Gandhi, Tolstoy, and King and it marked his first symphonic work in years.

Glass' next phase, if there was one, included a move further into symphonic territory, including a trilogy of nature-inspired works, led off by "The Light," commissioned in 1987 to celebrate the centenary of an experiment by two scientists to  measure a uniform speed of light.  This late 19th century work paved the way for Einstein's theoretical explanation of the speed of light through his theory of relativity.  "The Light" does, indeed, have much in the way of repetition, but there is also significant development in tempo, volume, instrumentation and motifs that make for a very compelling and satisfying excursion as strings and brass play off one another through striking melodic themes and variations.

Glass was fascinated by the collaboration of Brian Eno and David Bowie in their sequence of German-based albums from the late 1970s.  His first symphony, a three-movement work finished in 1992 and based on three tracks from the album "Low" was followed four years later by The Heroes Symphon0, a roughly 45-minute masterpiece based on the famed 1977 album. 

There are, for those who know the record, familiar melodies and themes, including the well-known title track (it's interesting to compare how the famed guitar riff by King Crimson's Robert Fripp, who hadn't played formally in a few years, is interpolated here) and several other pieces from the highly-regarded album. 

One piece, "Abdulmajid" was an outtake and has a strong Middle Eastern flavor as well as a distinctive castanet opening, while "Sense of Doubt" has its title conveyed in the theme, filled with a motif played by the brass set against a dark upper strings element.  "Sons of the Silent Age" has a slow, stately and affecting theme with a subtle rhythm held by strings.  Another fine melodic statement with a delicate percussive underlayment distinguishes the striking "Neukoln."  The closer, "V2 Schneider" has a lively rhythm and a strong ostinato while the pieces gains speed and intensity, finishing to a strong climax for a fascinating work by a composer at the top of his game.

This recording by Marin Alsop's top-notch Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra from the U.K. was made in May 2006 and was released as part of Naxos' American Classics series.  It is also available as part of a box set called "Of Beauty and Light:  The Music of Philip Glass."

Monday, September 1, 2014

P'ansori: Korea's Epic Vocal Art & Instrumental Music

This was another early favorite when world music was being explored back in the very early 1990s and one of the main reasons was the staggering vocal performance by Kim So-hee (born Kim Sun-Ok in 1917), who began, at seven years old, her studies in the ancient art of p'ansori

This is the theatrical performance of one of five epic tales from Korean folk history that involve using the voice for all elements of the performance, including every character, and without scenery, lights, costumes and other elements of Western theater, with the sole exception of a pook (barrel drum) accompanist. 

The performance of a p'ansori is not only extraordinarily demanding, but can take up to eight hours.  Kim So-hee was able to stage a dazzling one at the age of 19 and eventually was given the appellation of an "intangible national treasure," a status bestowed on two of the three instrumentalists, Kim, Yoon-duk on the pook and kuhmoongo, a large six-string zither similar to the Japanese koto, and Chi, Young-hee, who performs on the p'iri, an oboe-like bamboo reed, the haegeum, a violin with two strings of silk that is viewed as a wind instrument because of its range and timbre, and the changgo, a drum shaped like an hour-glass.

The album is bookended by portions of two p'ansori pieces and these are tour-de-forces for Kim's abilities and intensity in singing, recitation and other vocalizing.  This may sound strange, but, in the early 1990s, this blogger was listening to a lot of hip-hop and marveling at the rhythmic variety and invention of many a rapper, but, in her own way (perhaps!) Kim displays an array of vocal techniques and role-playing that was more astonishing.  Again, maybe the comparisons are totally unfounded, but that's what came to mind listening to this album earlier today.

As for the instrumentals, the two aforementioned players, along with Sung, Keum-yun, on changgo and kayageum, a smaller twelve-string zither, perform several pieces, highlighting the p'iri, kayageum, haegeum, and kuhmoongo with accompaniment on the changgo.  Some of these instruments date back nearly 1,500 years and the performances are dazzling, with a variety of emotive expressiveness, rhythms and technical sophistication that make for highly enjoyable listening.

The recording was made in 1972 for the amazing Nonesuch Explorer series when the quartet toured the United States and, with so many Koreans living in the country forty-plus years later, there must be occasional performances of this traditional music in some areas.  It would be a great treat to be able to see a concert--although Kim So-hee died in 1995.  So, hopefully, there are others carrying on these traditions and offering them to audiences here in the U.S.

Meantime, this is an album to savor over and over again and to enjoy ancient music that should appeal to adventurous modern listeners.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Quintet Live at Massey Hall

This is an unbelievable concert by a lineup of great musicians putting on a clinic of stellar ensemble playing and proficient and inventive soloing of the highest order, put on at a performance at the Toronto venue on 15 May 1953.

Unfortunately, a heavyweight title fight between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Wolcott and poor promotion and publicity led to a disappointing turnout to hear Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles  Mingus display their individual and collective talents on famed "bebop" tunes like "Salt Peanuts." "Hot House," "A Night in Tunisia," and "Perdido."  

The program also consisted of a beautifully-played standard, "All the Things You Are," and a lightning-fast workout in "Wee." These round out an album that doesn't appear to have any real downsides, although Mingus, who released the album on his own Debut, overdubbed bass passages because of under-recording at the concert.  Notably, Mingus and Roach were responsible for the recording, a significant achievement given that live albums were still relatively new.

Parker, characteristically, showed up to the gig without a saxophone, so borrowed a plastic Grafton alto.  Contractual issues also prevented the use of his name, so he went by the alias of Charlie Chan, a combination of his and his girlfriend's first names and a riff on a Chinese detective character from 1930s films.  Parker, whose top-notch playing days were rapidly dwindling (within two years he would be dead at 34 from alcohol and drug abuse and other factors), is a mighty player here, setting the pace for everyone else, as his force-of-nature effect often did. 

Gillespie, performing with his old partner, for the last time, is also in great form, displaying great speed, clarity in the highest notes, and showing that he was one of the few front-line players who could hold his own with the legendary Bird.  It was said, interestingly, that, when not playing, Gillespie constantly disappeared backstage to check on the status of the Marciano-Wolcott fight--the problem with the account is the fight was very short, with Marciano knocking Wolcott out with 2 1/2 minutes left in the first round, unless Gillespie was tuning into pre and post fight commentary or something!

Powell, who was evidently stone drunk from the get-go and would soon slip into mental illness that rapidly diminished his formidable skills, plays with great aplomb and authority, showing why he was considered one of the greatest pianists of his era. 

Mingus, the least-known of the combo at the time and who was a year or so from being a bandleader and crafting some of the greatest compositions in jazz, is a steady presence and performs especially well with Roach.  As for the sublime drummer, what can be said? 

Roach is totally in command of all of his ample resources behind the kit, accompanying each soloist as befitted the situation and then playing fantastic solos.  In some ways, his performance is the best as he had to be the bedrock, along with Mingus, but in a more visceral way, for the trip of legendary frontline soloists.

It is hard to imagine a recording that boasts such a stellar lineup--and one that fully delivered the goods.  The only alleged mark of real tension came when Parker, introducing "Salt Peanuts," referred to Gillespie as his "worthy constituent [rather than 'colleague'?]," which comment supposedly so irritated the trumpeter that Gillespie took to yelling the song title repeatedly during Bird's solo.  Yet, there was considerable laughter as the tune ended, though Gillespie was later quoted as saying he was angered by Parker's antics.

Then, there was the matter of payment.  With low turnout came minimal receipts which meant that there wasn't much money for the musicians.  Only Parker received money with Gillespie observing that he only was paid "years and years" after the gig.  Toronto was hardly a jazz center and the combination of the boxing match and the sad state of marketing the show all combined to lead to a hall that was about a quarter full.

Fortunately, this album has had a long life and several reissues and as long as this music is available it will, hopefully, have listeners.  It is one of the great jazz records this amateur has come across of the hundreds in the growing collection.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Style Council: Internationalists

The years from 1983 to 1989 when The Jam's Paul Weller changed musical directions with The Style Council after referred to by some as his "lost years."  Obviously, the sounds were dramatically different, although the last year or two of the former showed signs of Weller's move towards a poppier, soul and R&B direction.  And, there are those who think that Weller's famous decision to disband The Jam at the height of its popularity was less about a noble effort to not milk the successful formula of the group so much as a canny recognition that the British music scene was changing--away from guitar-based rock to synthesizer-based pop.

Whatever the case, Weller's formation of The Style Council definitely downplayed the guitar for keyboards, funk bass, a more finely honed sense of melody, and other elements that were closer to the pop world.  It also featured a determinedly fashion-conscious imagery that led some to call it highly self-conscious and pretentious.  But, what differentiated the band from legions of other groups of that often-maligned era of the Eighties, is that Weller's politicized lyrics actually became sharper and more direct than they were in the musically harder-edged The Jam.

Moreover, his forays into other musical styles provided, at least for the first half of the six-year tenure of TSC, a diversity that was not to be found elsewhere.  This changed by 1987 when the group's light dimmed dramatically and, when Weller decided to indulge his interests in the newly-emerging house music scene by the end of the decade, his longtime label, Polydor, rejected his house album, Modernism: A New Decade

Fortunately, Weller had the talent and perseverance to take a break, refocus, retool, and recognize that there was another shift in musical direction back to guitar music in the early 90s, leading to a solo career that, pushing 25 years now, has been remarkably successful.

This listener, as is often the case, got into The Jam just after their breakup.  Actually, seeing the video for "A Town Called Malice" was the first time encountering that remarkable group, but it was just after the September 1983 release of the stellar compilation Snap! when a strong passion for the band's music took root.

Meantime, Weller had moved on, joining forces with keyboardist Mick Talbot and guest musicians.  In March 1983 he released The Style Council's first single, "Speak Like a Child," followed by a couple of other singles and a pair of EPs, including the Introducing The Style Council record that was loaned by a friend. 

That same friend wanted to see TSC when they came to Los Angeles for two shows of four (the others in New York) for a very short (and the only in the band's history) American tour at the end of the year.  Work commitments, though, prevented attending, but the thought was they would return soon enough.  It was another nine years before Weller returned to Los Angeles and seeing three of his solo concerts proved to be great experiences watching a stellar musician at his best.

The Style Council's debut record was called My Ever Changing Moods in the U.S. (Café Bleu--obviously too "European" a title for American tastes?) after the title track, their lone Top 40 hit and one of Weller's best songs.  The record had jazz-drenched tunes, a rap, keyboard romps, and other assorted sounds, with Weller not even singing on several tracks--an indication of this view that the group was actually more of a collective.

That soon changed, though, with the release of the second album, Our Favourite Shop in the U.K. and Internationalists in the States.  By then, there was a set band with drummer Steve White and a phenom still in his teens, backup singer D.C. White (soon to be married to Weller), with bassist Camelle Hinds joining the group slightly later.

Internationalists is certainly a more cohesive and unified album than the debut and the quality of the songs is more consistent, while the diversity of sounds is still present, if not quite as pronounced.  The album began with a somber, but highly effective meditation on joblessness, the uprooting of families, and anger towards the Thatcher government in "Homebreakers."  An uptempo soul-funk workout, the title track declared that the band considered itself citizens of the world, rather than of a provincial nation--Weller was actively supporting Socialist causes at the time. 

Another anthemic piece that was the first single and charted at #6 in England is "Walls Come Tumbling Down," which opens with the growled "You don't have to take this crap / You don't have to sit back and relax," the last part of the couplet apparently referencing the long-forgotten, but then-wildly popular Frankie Goes to Hollywood and their "Relax" hit.  "The Lodgers" features another lyric about social malaise with a great bassline and solid White timekeeping, while D.C. Lee gets some prominent vocalizing on a top-notch track.

Another highlight is "With Everything to Lose" with a Latin rhythm, a nice flute intro and a lyric written by the drummer for a song that Weller had already completed called "Have You Ever Had It Blue?"  Weller rightly noted that White had written a fine lyric and quickly recorded the album version.  "A Stone's Throw Away" appeared with a string quartet and Weller's vocals and feature another excellent lyric about the widening gap between rich and poor in Thatcherite Britain.  The strings provide a nice understated backing to the singing--and it should be said that the change in Weller's singing from his days in The Jam was striking.

"All Gone Away" has acoustic guitar over a beguiling samba rhythm and Weller's near falsetto talking about the decline of small towns and, if anything, may be too brief at 2:17, but it's a fine song and perhaps an interesting comparison to The Jam's "Man in a Corner Shop."  There were complaints about "Come to Milton Keynes," a slap at faceless modern planned communities, but White's drumming is given a beautiful sound to accompany his always-fine playing, while Weller's melody moves along nicely.  "Boy Who Cried Wolf" is all-electronic and features more of Weller's newly-developed and emotive croon.

Church bells introduce "A Man of Great Promise," with another fine melody and lyrics about Dave Waller, a musical associate of Weller from the early days of The Jam and who died of a drug overdose.  A lilting rhythm of acoustic guitars, keyboards and cymbals underlie the interesting "Down in the Seine," which includes an accordion and Weller's singing of alternate verses in French, reinforcing his continental and, specifically, Parisian obsession.

The oddball tune is "The Stand-Up Comic's Instructions," with a popping bass, bluesy guitar licks and a Weller-sung chorus following the deep intonations of black British comedian Lenny Henry about racism.  It's been considered half-baked by some, but is part of the diversity of sound that makes the album intriguing in its catholic ambitions.

Internationalists marked the peak of The Style Council's tenure, hitting #1 on the British charts, though, predictably, doing poorly in America, which has just never made much of Weller's Anglo-centric approach (though this blogger has never seen his to be an issue.) 

The follow-up was two years later and, by then, Weller's decision to narrow the sound to the "northern soul" genre that was popular in England led to the "Cost of Loving" album to be considered too one-dimensional and lacking in passion and quality songwriting.  This blogger, an eager follower of the band to that point, passed on buying it after a listen of my brother's copy.

"Lost years" is hardly a term to describe the sea change that was The Style Council.  For a few years there, Paul Weller eagerly mixed a variety of sounds and wrote some of his best songs.  After 1985, though, the situation changed significantly, though there were enough moments in 1988's Confessions of a Pop Group that, for this listener, made the album's return to diversity rewarding for the most part.

The purchase a few years back of the 5-disc retrospective The Complete Adventures of The Style Council reflects the dichotomy of those halves of the band's existence.  The first two-and-a-quarters discs are generally brilliant, much of disc four with the Confessions material is quite good, and then there is the infamous Modernism and related pieces on the little-played fifth disc.  Yet, Weller deserves a lot of credit for being willing to try new musical approaches, distance himself from The Jam's iconic sound, and come up with a good deal of very fine music during what was often a dreary decade in the rock scene.  His revival in the early 90s led to the "lost years" tag being hung on The Style Council period, but it unfairly negates the often-superlative work he produced.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz: Spanish Piano Music, Vol. 1

The English Nimbus label has released many excellent world music (especially Indian) and classical recordings over the decades.  This 4-disc set of the piano music of the eminent Spanish composers Enrique Granados and Issac Albeniz is a top-notch recording that not only presents the works for which both are principally knows, Granados' Goyescas and Albéniz' Iberia, but other pieces representative of the two men.

The composers were contemporaries, who were born and died seven years apart, and they studies from the same musicologist, Felipe Pedrell, who inspired the men to embrace the idea of a particularly Spanish music. 

Albeniz was from a small town in the northeastern part of Spain, not far from the French border, among Basque country.  He was a child prodigy, taught by a sister, who made his concert debut in Barcelona at five years of age.  Though he passed the entrance exam to the conservatory at Paris, he was denied admission because he was considered too young.  Like Mozart, to whom he was compared, he was then shepherded by his father around Spain for performances with his sister.  After studying in Madrid, he went to Leipzig and Brussels and contemplated studying with Franz Liszt, but his plan never materialized.  Later, he lived and worked in London, though his interest in promoting a Spanish national music led him to his masterwork.

Albéniz composed, between 1905 and 1909, his Iberia suite of four books reflecting his impressions of the Spanish peninsula, with most of the focus on the Andalucía region.  A fishing village, a town overlooking a famed gorge and a suburb of Seville are impressionistic subjects in the first book.  The second reflects concepts derived from observing gypsies in Granada, an Andalucian dance, people in a tavern near Seville, architectural splendor in the Andalucía region and, in the only instance of a non-Andalucian subject matter, a neighborhood in Madrid.  Just after finishing the work, Albeniz, who had Bright's disease, succumbed to liver disease a few days prior to this 49th birthday.

In addition to Iberia, this set contains his Suite Española, the España "souvenirs", a tango, and other works, including two unfinished pieces, Navarra (intended for Iberia) and Azulejos, which were completed by pianist Martin Jones for this recording.

Granados, a Catalonian who was raised in Barcelona, was best known initially as a pianist with highly-regarded improvisational skills, though his first published work, the Danzas Españolas brought him attention as did an opera, María del Carmen.

The composer based his Goyescas on the work of the famed painter Francisco de Goya and was completed in the early 1910s.  Notably, the composer was asked to adapt the music for an opera, which was completed in 1914, just as World War I erupted.  Finally, two years later a performance was held in New York and it was well received to the extent that President Woodrow Wilson invited Granados to a White House reception.  Delaying his return to Europe for the honor, Granados and his wife were on the ferry, the S.S. Sussex in the English Channel when the ship was hit by a German torpedo and partially destroyed.  Granados, who was 48, made it on to a lifeboat, but his wife Amparo struggled in the ocean and the composer dove in the water to save his wife, but both drowned.

Other works by Granados included in the set are a reverie, transcribed by Jones from a piano roll recording of the composer that was made the year he died; a set of Escenas Románticas (romantic scenes), and an Allegro de concierto.

There is a great deal of romantic feeling and emotion in these beautiful pieces, along with a high degree of technical precision, and Jones, who recorded the works over several sessions between late 1995 and Spring 1998, is excellent throughout.  He has recorded many, many albums for Nimbus, including the complete works of such composers as Mendelssohn, Debussy (part of which was featured here), Brahms, and Stravinsky.  The recording quality is clear, crisp and rich and the set is a real treat, especially for an amateur who knew little of Granados and Albéniz and their work.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Masters of Turkish Music

Since we're on a bit of a roll with music recorded in the 78 rpm era, coming off the great Art Tatum, here's an offering from 1990 on Rounder Records of Turkish music that was produced between 1906 and 1949, in tandem with the University of Maryland-Baltimore County Center for Turkish Music.

Gorgeous male and female singing abounds on this album, full of keening, elongated melodies characteristic of the music of so much of the Middle East, but also with wonderful instrumental work, coming from the court of the failing Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after World War I in 1918, folk music, and urban music often performed by gypsies and other sources.  Improvisation, moreover, plays an essential part of this fantastic music.

As observed in the brief, but informative, liners, record labels from Germany, England and a local label in Istanbul owned by Jews, produced recordings from as early 1903 and records from Turkey began to be available in the U.S. from about 1912 thanks to migrants from the Middle East and Near East.  An overview of several styles of music, one of which, taqsim, has been covered here through the great album called Taqasim featuring Ali Jihad Racy and Simon Shaheen.

The first half of the disc features classical vocal music, including the gazel of the Ottoman court tradition which emphasizes the often staggering improvisations of a highly-skilled vocalist, while the second half highlights instrumentals, including, at the end, several excellent taqsim.

If one listens to flamenco singing or that of Bulgarian choral music, the clear connection to this vocal music is obvious.  Moreover, the use of stringed instruments on this album also had ramifications throughout the Arab world and parts of Europe that were either controlled by Islamic regimes, as in Spain for seven centuries, or in the Balkans.

A special note of praise should go to the sound restoration work of Jack Towers in transferring these old recordings from discs supplied by two collectors and creating as clean and clear a sound as possible (and the pops, clicks and hisses were wisely left in).  Truly, great music still comes through regardless of the technology.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here

It's one thing to hear a pianist with absolute control, staggering technique, superlative soulfulness and unparalleled swing.  It's quite another when that player was completely blind in the left eye and had almost no vision in the right.  Somehow, the masterful Art Tatum not only overcame that handicap, but actually transcended it in being one of the greatest practitioners of his instrument, not just in jazz, but in any form of music.  Notably, the great Vladimir Horowitz, one of the piano's legendary players in the classical world, and George Gershwin, the famed composer, were enthusiastic admirers--in a time when classical musicians looked down upon jazz players and, of course, white audiences did not, as a rule, accept black entertainers like Tatum in the way they would a white musician.

Piano Starts Here, first issued by Columbia in the 1968, when jazz was losing audiences and you'd think the last thing that would be accepted was music from thirty-five years prior, presents Tatum's earliest recordings, a quartet of sides from March 1933, including the mind-blowing "Tiger Rag" as well as a spellbinding version of "St. Louis Blues," a tune identified with another great jazz pianist of the time, Earl "Fatha" Hines, as well as the standards "Tea for Two" and "Sophisticated Lady."

The other nine pieces came from a Spring 1949 concert called "Just Jazz", held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and are filled with Tatum's trademark rapid runs in sixteenth notes, crystalline touch, boogie-woogie or stride playing and others.  He also had the remarkable ability to rapidly and radically shift the time by halving the tempo or, alternatively, doubling it, while adding little flourishes that brought a playful humor to his playing.

In some ways, Tatum is an interesting comparison to Cecil Taylor, whose jaw-dropping technique is exhibited in entirely different ways, apropos of very distinct eras.  Both seemed to be incapable of fluffing notes and were just unparalleled in their abilities to master the piano.  Whereas Taylor, afer 1961 especially, moved further away from song structures with strong melodies and mined the percussive and harmonic potential of the keyboard, Tatum always worked within established structures and, it's important to note, the limitations of the 78 rpm record and its length limits.

Tatum died in 1956 and was only in his mid-Forties.  He was never accorded the recognition he deserved, but he is still listened to and admired today and for very good reason.  Maybe he was more of a dazzling technician than an artist like a Duke Ellington or Bill Evans or any number of other great pianists, but with his superlative abilities and crowd-pleasing technique, it would have been hard to envision him being any other way.

In any case, Piano Starts Here and a 1940 Decca album of solos, to be featured here someday, are among the greatest examples of the piano solo you'll hear anywhere, in jazz and beyond.  Let's hope the great Art Tatum always has an audience and that it'll grow.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Buddy Guy: Buddy's Blues

This is another exceptional entry in the Chess Records 50th anniversary series from the late Nineties and features fifteen tracks from Guy's tenure at the legendary Chicago blues label from 1960-1967.  Guy was truly a triple threat--a fine songwriter, an excellent soulful singer, and a staggering guitarist-and these selections are a great cross-section to his years with the label.  Notably, he was not as well regarded in those years as some of the other Chess greats like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and so forth, but his time would come years later with his 1991 album Damn Right, I Got The Blues, which sold loads of copies and got tons of acclaim.

Still, there's no denying the stunning quality of Buddy's Blues from his singing and playing to the beautiful remastering that opens up the sound of these Sixties recordings to the stellar bands he performed with, including pianist Otis Spann, bassist Jack Meyers, drummer Fred Below and horn players Jarrett Gibson, Bob Neely, Donald Hankins, Gene Berge and more.

Guy originals like "Worried Mind;" "I Found a True Love;" "Stone Crazy;" "Ten Years Ago;" and "My Love is Real" are complemented by a raft of tunes by the great Willie Dixon, including his "I Cry and Sing the Blues;" "Let Me Love You Baby;" "Pretty Baby;" and "When My Left Eye Jumps."  There is also a standout cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Keep It To Yourself," retitled here as "Keep It to Myself."  Throughout, Guy sings with great power and intensity, while his guitar burns with a fantastically clean clear tone.

Guy just celebrated his 78th birthday on 30 July and it was intended to get this post together for that day, but here's a belated birthday wish to one of the great musical figures in American history, not just in the blues.  Long may Buddy Guy live and play live and otherwise!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Edvard Grieg: Holberg Suite/ Norwegian Wedding Dances/Lyric Suite

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was a Romantic pianist and composer whose use of folk music elements in his native Norway somewhat mirrors similarly explorations by contemporaries like Bedrich Smetana, Jean Sibelius, Anton Dvorak and others in other parts of Europe.

This 2-CD set on the budget German label, Pilz, presents a nice variety of the instantly-likable work of Grieg, including some of his better-known and more obscure works.  The Slowakische Philarmnonie, conducted by Libor Pesek, and pianist Stefan Jeschko perform wonderfully, showing that lesser-known ensembles and players sometimes get short shrift as their status allows for these budget labels to offer well-performed music at a low price with no noticeable reduction in quality.

The Holberg Suite was published in 1884 to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg and is based on musical forms (the air, sarabande and gavotte, for example) from the 18th-century.  Grieg is most renowned for his Peer Gynt suite, which will be highlighted here sometime, but the Holberg has as much going for it, including one after another of memorable and beautiful melodies, as well as striking harmonizing of instrumentation.  Notably, the Holberg was originally composed for solo piano and only later adapted for orchestra, where the richness of its melodies and general structure are more fully realized.

What follows are a quartet of "Norwegian Wedding Dances," and a smattering of lyric pieces for piano that are beautifully rendered and redolent of the Romantic style which was the rage at the time.  Particularly notable are the Halling Dances, which include some of Grieg's more recognizable melodic themes.

Then, there is the Ballade in G Minor, also known as "Ballade in the Form of Variations on a Norwegian Folk Song", the source being "The Mountain Song," is another gorgeous piano work of themes and variations which starts quietly and impressionistically and builds from there, with a clear (at least for this amateur listener) from Chopin and Schubert, as it develops impressively and more forcefully with crystalline arpeggios and strong left-hand block chords.  Jeschko, as throughout the recording, plays with virtuosity, authority and a balance of power and a light touch as called for.

The second disc is principally noted for its rendering of the Lyric Suite, derived from a larger body of Lyric Pieces Grieg composed with three of the pieces developed from original orchestrations of lyric pieces by Hungarian conductor Anton Seidl, though Grieg later revamped the trio and added a fourth entirely his own.  Grieg appreciated Seidl's work but felt that his lighter touch did not accord well with Seidl's more bombastic style developed partly from his training under Franz Liszt and more prominently from his long association with Richard Wagner.  In any case, these are very fine pieces performed with great skill by Marian Pivca.

A Concerto for Violin in D-Minor by the Philharmonia Slavonica, conducted by Carlo Pantelli, with Bruno Zwicker as soloist; a Symphonic Dance by the Nuremberg Symphony and a Valse Triste by the London Festival Orchestra, the latter two conducted by Alfred Scholz round out the second disc and are beautifully performed and also a nice selection of the variety of the composer's oeuvre.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ornette Coleman: Change of the Century

There is a generation of jazz musicians that we are rapidly losing and yesterday another giant passed on.  Bassist Charlie Haden, whose work with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett and his own Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West projects among many others put him at the forefront of so-called "avant garde" or "new jazz" playing, died at age 76 in Los Angeles after a long illness.

Haden, who came to Los Angeles to study music and met Coleman in the mid-1950s, first came to attention in the legendary Coleman quartet that made a splash at the Five Spot Café in New York in 1959 and in subsequent classic recordings for Atlantic Records.  The first, The Shape of Jazz to Come, has been featured here and is one of the great jazz records of all time.

The second album, recorded in Los Angeles in October 1959, is Change of the Century and its assertive, provocative title, as with its predecessor, is more than apt and delivers fully on its promise.  Coleman was hitting on all cylinders with his unusual composition and arranging method, as well as his emotive and innovative playing and his telepathic harmonizing with Don Cherry, on pocket trumpet, continues to astound.  Billy Higgins, an always-versatile drummer who could play as easily with the freest of players as well as the most traditional, is relentlessly swinging even as he adapts his playing to match the unusual structures established by the leader.

Then there's Haden, whose supple, flexible, creative and spot-on tone works in tandem with Higgins to keep those free rhythms with enough organization to allow the soloists to work without hindrance and provide the listener endless enjoyment—provided that the listener appreciates the yeoman work that a bassist provides.

This album is filled with great pieces, from the opening "Ramblin'" to the self-evidently titled "Free," the Higgins-showcase "Forerunner," which also has an excellent blistering Coleman solo and the sublime "Una Muy Bonita," which starts with Haden's low, simple but powerful underpinning riff and Coleman and Cherry's great melodic harmonizing to start a great piece of music.  "Bird Food" has a melody that is, of course, highly evocative of Charlie Parker, showing the importance of tradition expressed in new ways.  Cherry also gets an extended solo here.  Finally, "Change of the Century" features a head arrangement of great complexity and speed with that Coleman/Cherry interplay that may well have peaked on this album and its title track.  Coleman's solo work is also something to behold here.

Again, Haden's consistency, inventiveness and dependability in holding down the bottom is nothing short of remarkable on each of these tunes.  He does get to put his playing more in the forefront on "The Face of the Bass" but it is not one he uses to show off, but instead displays his technique in more subtle ways which make his understated playing all the more remarkable.  Sadly, as was too often the case in the jazz world, a heroin addiction led to Haden's departure from the Coleman quartet in August 1960.
But, as noted above, Haden went on to other impressive work, but his years with Coleman are likely the most memorable and it's hard to top the fabulous Change of the Century, which had the unusual distinction of being a sophomore release (well, in this case, a major-label followup--two albums on the Los Angeles-based Contemporary label predate the Atlantic albums) that was every bit as good as its forerunner.
30 years later, as part of the Los Angeles Festival, a reunion of the Coleman Quartet was scheduled at the beautiful old Orpheum Theatre in downtown.  The September 1990 performance, however, became a late-hour trio when Don Cherry came down sick after a dental appointment.  This listener, just starting to become exposed to jazz in a big way, happened to have great orchestra-level seats near the center of the former movie palace and listened with enthusiastic amateur wonder as Coleman, Higgins and Haden performed two hours of magical music.
It was an unforgettable experience and, pondering the death of Charlie Haden, it is one that came immediately to mind when the news was read.  Long may his music be heard and appreciated!