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.