Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Albert Ayler: Spirits Rejoice

This entry is in response to the death on 19 April of Bernard Stollman, the attorney who founded ESP-Disk in response to hearing the amazing Albert Ayler perform live in 1964 and told him he was founding a label and wanted the tenor sax player to be his first artist.

Stollman, whose first release on ESP-Disk was actually a record about Esperanto, the universal language that has never caught on, liked to advertise that with his label, "the artists alone decide what you hear on their ESP-Disk."  And, however true that may have been, the label recorded some of the most expressive and off-putting (to most ears) of the so-called free jazz players from the middle and late sixties.  Ayler was perhaps the most notorious of them.

Stollman, however, was roundly criticized from musicians who recorded for the label and found themselves receiving little or no royalties and having no control over their music.  At the same time, the label made so little money that it was closed after about a decade, though revived again in 2005.  This version of Spirits Rejoice was issued in 2012 with a new design and layout and remastering.

Recorded at Judson Hall in New Tork on 23 September 1965, Spirits Rejoice is a prime example of Ayler's peak ecstatic phase, in which the songs largely revolve around spiritual themes exemplified by references to martial, New Orleans, R&B and other genres.  In a rare occurrence, another sax player, altoist Charles Tyler, recorded with Ayler, whose brother Donald also marks his debut as a rather raggedy, but very emotional, trumpeter.

The three horns are generally either playing the strangely uplifting themes or tearing into powerful solos, but they sound quite harmonic in the former, while moving in different directions, but with an ear to each other, into the outer limits of jazz on the latter.

Meanwhile, the remarkable Sunny Murray, eerily moaning most of the way through, plays his drums with the kind of meterless freedom that allows the soloists to play however they'd like, while keeping a sense of order to the proceedings.

The drummer is joined by bassists Henry Grimes and Gary Peacock, who are often not heard well in the mix unless soloing, even with a good remastering job.  This is a bit of a shame because both played often with Ayler and knew how to use their instruments, particularly Peacock, in the service of the music.

On at least one piece, "Angels," Ayler pairs up with the much older harpsichordist Call Cobbs, whose instrument was often used in pop, rock and jazz in the Sixties and sounds quaint, yet oddly appealing.  The again, hearing enough of Ayler's music and its obsession with spiritual concerns, Cobbs' playing does have an uncanny way of harmonizing with the somewhat maudlin melody of the piece.

Through Bernard Stollman and ESP-Disk, much of Ayler's best and most challenging work was released (even if Ayler received very little money for his work, if the accusations against Stollman are true) and we are fortunate to have the documentation of music from one of jazz's most intriguing musicians.  Throughout, Ayler's huge tone, melodic simplicity, utter sincerity, and his frenetic and fantastic solo work present him as one of the era's most distinctive performers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Franz Schubert: Trout Piano Quintet/String Quartet in A Minor

In addition to immediately being drawn to the music of the great Franz Schubert back when discovering him in 1990, this listener was particularly attuned to the work of the Austrian master in 2008 for a variety of reasons.

Schubert only lived thirty-one years, but was similar to Mozart and his contemporary Mendelssohn in being a prodigy and prolific.  This Durkin Hayes-released album by the British Royal Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, recorded early in 1994, presents two of the composer's best-known chamber works.

The gorgeous, stately and highly emotive melodies of the Piano Quintet in A Major, known as the "Trout", was completed in 1819 when Schubert was 22, but was not published until 1829, the year after his death.  In addition to the time-honored beauty of the melodies and harmonic richness of the score, there is the matter of the unusual instrumentation and structure.  The name derives from the piece's connection to a lied (song) called "The Trout" that the composer used in the fourth movement.

Normally, works like this match the piano to the standard string quartet of two violins, viola and cello, but Schubert removed one of the violins and inserted a double bass instead, which provided a deeper, richer bottom end that worked particularly well with the slower, more somber aspects.  Moreover, the composer  wrote the piece in five movements, instead of the usual four.  This allowed him to develop more variations on themes and, because of the wealth of wonderful motivic material found in the piece, the expanded movement structure gives the listener that much more to enjoy.

The "Rosamunde" string quartet, in A Minor, is another masterpiece with a series of gorgeous melodies that have endured.  Achingly beautiful and simple, the theme is followed by a section with a strong sense of drama and tension, one anchored in a deep wellspring of emotion.

The composer had his upbringing in a musical family that performed chamber music at home and he began writing fine string quartets at a young age (not unlike Rossini).  Of the numbered set of fifteen quartets attributed to Schubert, the A minor is the thirteenth and often called the "Rosamunde."  It was completed in the first months of 1824 and was not as popular in later years as his epic "Death and the Maiden" which was completed at the same time.  Yet, it was the only of his quartets published in his lifetime.

The name "Rosamunde" came from the fact that part of the piece was extracted from a song included in Schubert's incidental music for a play of that name and included in the slow second movement.  In terms of his amazing knack for highly lyrical themes, sense of powerful dynamics and complex textures, Schubert, in the "Rosamunde", creates a masterpiece that, coupled with "Death and the Maiden" set a high standard for the string quartet form.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Navajo Songs

Earlier this month, a trip to New Mexico and Colorado included an excursion to the Four Corners Monument.  While there was plenty of the obligatory posing for photos with hands and feet in each of the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, there was also a chance to browse the stands of Indian artists and purchase some nice examples.

However, because the monument is on the sovereign lands of the Navajo people, it was also a reminder of one of the more interesting recordings issued in 1992 by the Smithsonian Folkways label, Navajo Songs.  This album, in a cassette version, was first purchased by this blogger shortly after its release and had a big impression then.  A repurchase on CD a couple of years ago reinforced that perception.

This is because these recordings, made by Laura Boulton in 1933 and 1940, are about as close as we can get to authentic tribal music before the introduction of "modern" instrumentation and, as one critic noted, before associations with "cheesy new age music" became standard!

There are fourteen tracks on this album, with the first half-dozen coming from the Yeibichei ritual ceremony that, the detailed and highly informative liners observe, involve "groups of about a dozen masked dancers who impersonate male and female deities . . ." and are composed of "chanting, sandpainting ritual, prayers, and prayer offerings."  Dancers use gourd rattles and sing in hauntingly beautiful, energetic and powerful ways.

There are also two songs that were performed to accompany corn grinding, one purely with vocals and the other with the accompaniment of someone beating rhythms on an overturned basket.  Notably, the singers were men who performed to make the hard work of grinding more palatable for the women who did these tasks.

Another set of four songs are from the Enemyway ceremony and deals with songs that involve combating the influence of souls of dead enemy fighters, such as the Pueblo Indians of Taos, New Mexico, east of Navajoland. or monsters who were affecting human lives.  Interestingly, modern versions have dealt with the problems Navajo soldiers had in the American armed forces or have been exposed to non-Navajo spirits.

There are two collections of sway songs, with percussive accompaniment on water drums and water-filled clay pots, and are so named because the performers swayed from side to side while singing.

These are followed by two groupings of circle dance songs, performed to chase out bad spirits and there is an element which mimics the return of a chief who had attacked Taos and then shared the booty he confiscated and shared it with the women at home.  The singing is followed by a statement about how performers shared money with their dancing partners in recollection of the historic return from battle.  All of the above were recorded in the 1940 sessions.

Finally, the remaining pieces accompany the moccasin game, an ancient gambling pastime, in which participants sing songs like those on this recording to accompany the game.  This involved having a quartet of moccasins on the floor of a hogan between two teams.  One team covers the shoes while a member places a stone or ball in one of them and the other team has to guess in which shoe the object is located.  There were hundreds of songs that were performed during the games, ten of which are provided on the disc.  The moccasin songs here came from the 1933 sessions.

Navajo Music is not just a valuable historical document of Indian singing and performance, but also reflects the fact that most music by our ancestors was based on everyday activities concerning religious and spiritual practice, work, and play.  Music was more directly connected with daily events and rituals, not as abstracted as it is for many societies today.  Laura Boulton is to be remembered for her preservation of these recordings from 75 and 80 years ago and Smithsonian Folkways thanked for its curating of this and other remarkable recordings.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Julius Hemphill: Five-Chord Stud

The great altoist and composer Julius Hemphill had a heart condition that cut short his life at 57 and he was unable to play on this fantastic Black Saint recording from November 1993, though he composed and conducted all the pieces by a sextet composed entirely of horns.

The overall sound is reminiscent of the amazing World Saxophone Quartet, of which Hemphill was a key composer and performer until his health worsened.  The amazing altoist Tim Berne, a Hemphill acolyte; baritone sax player Fred Ho; tenors James Carter and Andrew White; and altoists and soprano sax performers Marty Ehrlich (a longtime Hemphill associate) and Sam Furnace play together beautifully and are fully in tune with Hemphill's pieces, which he conducted.

The interplay is something and Hemphill's ability to work in his composing to blend and contrast the tonal range of the various saxes is something to behold.  Some pieces are bluesy, others more abstract, but the writing is sure and steady and the performances highly sympathetic to Hemphill's compositional characteristics.  Soul, blues, free jazz and other elements abound with a couple of the pieces being really "out," while others having a welcoming accessibility even without traditional rhythmic accompaniment from a bass, drums, piano and the like.

Two pieces were listed as collective improvisations with no individual soloing, while a third had a trio improvisation by Ehrlich, Furnace and Carter and then a group improvisation.  The other six tracks featured at least one soloist and up to five, as in the title track.

Five-Chord Stud was also one of five Hemphill albums rereleased as part of a Black Saint box set repackaging and it is a highlight of the set and his career generally.  Even if too ill to play, his distinctive writing and arranging is keenly heard throughout and Berne, Ehrlich, Carter and White in particular are exceptional.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Rounder Records Story

For sheer volume, the 25th anniversary box set, The Real Music Box, issued in 1995 by the amazing Massachusetts label, Rounder, is pretty tough to beat for value, as it includes four double-disc sets on Louisiana-based, blues, folk and bluegrass music, plus a bonus disc with a wide variety of material on it.

However, the 40th anniversary four-disc compilation, The Rounder Records Story, is highlighted here because, though it offers less music, it does provide overviews by each of the four decades, including, of course, material from the latter half of the 1990s and the 2000s, giving a different kind of range of the prodigious and diverse output of this exemplary record label.

The other attraction to this set is that, by going through the four decades, the music is intermingled, so that a bluegrass piece is followed by a zydeco tune, which then is followed by a blues song and so on.  That kind of sequencing is more jarring and gives something of a different sense of adventure to the listener than music organized around a genre (this is, by no means, a big knock on The Real Music Box, which is a real pleasure to listen to, as well.)

Starting from a song from its first artist, bluegrass legend George Pegram, up through material by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and from the Holy Modal Rounders to Rush, and from Buckwheat Zydeco to George Thorogood, the music may be highly differentiated in sound, but there is one characteristic that spans the whole set.  That is the absolute devotion of the founders of Rounder to present American "roots" music in all of its diversity and quality.  Well, not quite all American--there is a song from African kora master, Alhaji Bai Konte  and another from the great Jamaican reggae outfit, Culture (the albums from which these songs came were favorites of this blogger back in the early 90s, but were on cassette--CD versions are hard to come by.)

It's hard to pick out highlights, but there are some standouts, including the amazing but troubled piano James Booker and his "Classified"; the amazing The Three Pickers of Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs in a stirring live "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms"; teen sensation Mar O'Connor's "Tom and Jerry" from the mid-70s; a great "Down to the Wire" by Son Volt; the intricate lyrics of Bill Morrissey in "Birches"; Plant and Krauss's "Please Read the Letter"; anything Krauss, actually; Thorogood's popular version of "Who Do You Love"; "La Porte Dans Arriere" by D.L. Menard and the Louisiana Aces; Bela Fleck's banjo workout, "Whitewater"; the strange, but really pleasurable "Tipitina" by Professor Longhair; Charles Brown's "A Virus Called the Blues"; Linda Thompson's beautiful "Versatile Heart"; Tish Hinojosa's plaintive protest song, "Something in the Rain"; and the aforementioned Alhaji Bai Konte's "Jula Jekere" and Culture's "Babylon's Big Dog."

Again, though, there are dozens of great songs in this set of 87 tracks, but the biggest takeaway from this set for this listener was the material relating to bluegrass and Cajun and other Louisiana-based music.  This is simply because these arenas of music were not familiar at all, as opposed to the blues, rock, folk and other forms represented.  The quality of the performances by so many violinists, banjoists, horn players and singers is uniformly excellent and opened this blogger's eyes to large swaths of American music that had, regrettably, been unheard before.

So, kudos to Rounder for 45 years of great work and for issuing box sets that really give a nice cross-section of the immense music the label has issued over the near quarter century since its very modest start in 1970.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer

At the time this opera premiered in March 1991, the United States had just unleashed the firepower of the first Gulf War on Iraq, but the searing memories of the murder of Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists on the cruise ship Achille Lauro were all-too-fresh and the accompanying controversy overshadowed just what a beautiful, haunting and poignant work this piece is.  The CD release was on Nonesuch Records, the longtime label of Adams' highly-interesting and varied work.

Working with librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars (the choreography was by Mark Morris), who collaborated with Adams on his somewhat lighter first opera, 1987's Nixon in China, the composer delivered a masterpiece of power, tension, a wide range of dynamics, emotion and contemplation.  Over time, resistance to the idea of performing the piece has gradually lessened among many, though, understandably, a great many Jews are loath to support the work because it does give voice to the hijackers.

The work's connection to the Bach Passions, its use of dual roles for performers, the presence of choral prologues and at the end of the scenes, and a direct reference to Satie's Gymnopedie hearken back to time-honored traditions of music and stage performance from the ancient Greeks on.  In the hands of Adams and Goodman, a definite modern twist is put into the composition that recognizes antecedents, while looking forward.

It is notable that the work ends with the very powerful and moving lament of the widow Marilyn Klinghoffer, whose vocalized responses range from tender to fiery and full of love for her murdered husband to anger to the ship's captain and rage against her husband's killers.  Hearing the work and reading the lyrics, it is hard to imagine how the opera could be seen as any kind of mitigating apologia for the horrible acts perpetrated by the hijackers, though some of the points raised on behalf of the Palestinians do provide some sense of balance.  It was (and, for many, is) the emotion behind the heinousness and cold-bloodedness of the crime and the eternal conflict it represents that generates the strong feelings about his masterful work of art.

As noted above, twenty-five years on, The Death of Klinghoffer is gradually becoming staged more frequently and Adams and Goodman afforded more positive recognition for the excellence of their work.  Just last October, the work received its first performance at the Met in New York, but not without heated criticism of the institution and its Jewish general manager, as well as of Adams and Goodman and on-the-spot acrimony directed by protesters at attendees.

An excellent review and essay about the performance in The New Yorker is really worth reading as author Alex Ross spends considerable time addressing protests, as well as the performance and the piece, noting that there is nothing in The Death of Klinghoffer that "supports" the murder or the perpetrators.  What Ross does perceptively point out is that the Klinghoffers don't appear until Act II, while the Palestinians take up a considerable amount of the first act--this, Ross speculated with good effect, might be at the heart of much of the anger directed toward the composer and librettist.  Moreover, Ross highlighted the powerful end as represented by Marilyn Klinghoffer and offered the interesting observation that the orchestral aspect of the work was as important as the vocal.

Click here for a link to this very fine article.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hindustani Classical Vocal

This triple-disc box set issued by the UK-based label, Nimbus Records, features three-and-a-half hours of spellbinding, evocative and expertly sung and played vocal music from the Hindustani classical tradition of northern India.  Highlighted are three legendary female singers:  Sulochana Brahaspati, Girija Devi, and Shruti Sadolikar, who are each given a disc of at least sixty-five minutes to show their amazing talents and vocal gymnastics.

As typical for this breathtaking style of music, the ragas tend to start slow and, anchored by the drone of the tambura and occasional striking of the tabla, atmospheric. For the longer pieces, lasting in one case nearly an hour, the gradual buildup of tension and tempo is a wonder to behold, at least for those with the patience to listen that long.  Something of a concentrated effort on listening to the unfolding, however, is well worth the time invested.

Brahaspati, now approaching her eighties, is given that one-hour Raga Bilakshani Todi to demonstrate the full range of her impressive vocal prowess, and her miniature (well, at sixteen minutes in comparison to the first piece) Raga Mishra Bhairavi is also a tour-de-force.  Recorded at the Nimbus Records studio in England in late September 1991, the then 57-year old vocalist has a deeper voice than her compatriots, and is accompanied by sarangi player Sultan Khan and tabla performer Anindo Chatterjee.

Shruti Sadolikar is much younger, though now in her mid-sixties, and is from a subsequent generation than the other women on this set.  She has two longer ragas, the Miyan-ki Todi and the Bibhas, the former being over thirty-five and the latter twenty-seven minutes in length.  She concludes with a shorter fourteen-minute Raga Bhairavi.  Anand Krishna Kunte plays the sarangi, Chatterjee is again on tablas, and there are two tambura players, Uma Mehta and Kamaljit Kaur.  This disc was recorded at the end of February 1992 in France.

Finally, there is Girija Devi, who was recorded at the Nimbus studio, a couple of weeks after Brahaspati in October 1991.  Her first raga, the Maru Bihag, is just over a half-hour.  She has by far the shortest piece in the set, the Raga Desh at just under seven minutes, followed by the sixteen-minut Raga Pilu and the eleven-minute Dadra.  Devi is accompanied by tambura player Sudha Datta, tabla performer Subhen Chatterjee, and Ramesh Misra on sarangi.

While not as well-known as the instrumental music embodied by such internationally-acclaimed performers as Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha, Ali Akbar Khan, and Zakir Hussain, the female vocalists featured on this box set are as technically breathtaking and emotionally evocative as their male instrumental counterparts.