Sunday, June 21, 2015

Luciano Berio: Sequenzas I-XIV

This is a spellbinding and utterly absorbing three-disc set of performances, released by the Naxos label in 2006, on an array of solo instruments written by the Italian composer over a forty-four year period from 1958 until just a year prior to his death in 2003.

The lengths of the sequences run from just over five minutes for the first of the lot for flute to sequence ten on trumpet with piano resonance at just over seventeen minutes.  Other instruments featured are harp, piano, trombone, viola, oboe, violin, clarinet, guitar, bassoon, accordion, cello, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, and the female voice.

The recordings were made between 1998 and 2004 and are uniformly stunning in the composing, beautiful in the playing, and especially crystalline in the recording.  In fact, the use of St. John Chrysostom Church in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada provided a very particular environment in which the sounds emanating from the instrument filled the structure and almost makes the venue another instrument with the rich timbres and sustained echo adding so much to each performance.

Of particular note is Berio's extensive use of extended techniques beyond traditional methods of performance on any given instruments.  These can be done any number of ways in terms of tapping rhythms on the body of an instrument, overblowing through a mouthpiece to create multiphonic sounds, bowing or plucking strings on a different part of a fret or rethinking how an instrument is generally used (such as a harp being played more aggressively through tapping on the body as well as varied strumming.)

Perhaps the most interesting of the extended techniques comes in the aforementioned sequence ten, in which the trumpeter blows into an open piano to generate the resonance referred  to in the title.  Also amazing is the sequence for bassoon (twelve), in which it appears that the player is utilizing circular breathing to continue the performance all the way through--this is truly amazing to hear.

It is probably too much to attempt to listen to all three discs and fourteen sequences at one time, but with each disc running at approximately an hour, taking them individually makes for an easier digesting of the rich content of the compositions and a fuller appreciation for the playing and, again, for that venue.

This listener, very new to Berio, having only heard his vocal masterwork Coro, approached the box that way, taking each disc on its own and absorbing what was heard before moving on to the next. Also very helpful are Richard Whitehouse's liner notes, pointing out that the complexity of the composing and technical virtuosity are matched by the emotive expressiveness brought to the performances by the musicians.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement in this series, though, is the way in which Berio wrote in a modern fashion while making reference to tradition.  This is not an extraordinarily difficult set of recordings to listen to--at least, not in three doses as noted above.

Someone who doesn't have a particular interest in so-called avant garde classical music, but may be willing to venture beyond traditional expressions on a variety of largely tried and true instruments, might find that taking the sequenzas in one disc at a time can be highly rewarding.  This listener has even listened to these recordings in two consecutive home gym workouts, which might (or might not) mean something in terms of the power and complexity of the sounds developing a strong sense of highly creative energy.

As is so often the case, Naxos is to be commended for putting together such a gorgeously-recorded, stunningly-performed and very affordable set of this remarkable music.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Flamenco Live!

This 4-disc box set, issued by the British Nimbus label in 2000, is a collection of four previously-released live albums from the label.  Three of the four feature singers and guitarists performing cante with the traditional-style vocals of María la Burra, María Soleá, José de la Tomasa, Chano Lobato, Manuel de Paula, Gaspar de Utrera, Miguel Funi, El Cabrero, Tina Pavón, Emilia Jandra, Rafael Calderón, Manuel Márquez, and Monica Dominguez--all of whom deserve mention because they are all excellent in conveying the passion and intensity of the form.

On two of the cante discs, the guitarists, who play with great dexterity, emotion and the use of variations are Paco del Gastor and his brother Juan.  They provide a perfect accompaniment to the vocalists in the environments of flamenco clubs, with a few in larger concert settings.  The fourth disc, another cante, features guitarist Manolo Dominguez, whose daughter Monica is one of the five vocalists, with the material also recorded in clubs.

The third disc is a spotlight for Paco del Gastor, whose talents took him from his native Morón de la Frontera, where much of this music was recorded and where the del Gastor dynasty of excellent guitarists were from, to the Spanish capital Madrid.  After hearing three recordings of cante, in which the singers are justly at the fore, demonstrating their various talents and abilities to the fullest, it is a bit jarring to hear a solo guitar performance--at least at the beginning.  But, Paco del Gastor is such an amazing performer that any sense of disconnect melts away quickly as the listener is absorbed in the work of this master.

That said, the highlight of this box, at least for this listener, are the two performances at the end of the second disc, Cante Flamenco, in which the del Gastor brothers take a back seat to the remarkable talents of El Cabrero (José Dominguez Muñoz), who had a twelve-year partnership with Paco del Gastor.

That synergy definitely shows on these pieces, recorded at a larger festival, but El Cabrero is the main attraction, with his vocals featuring a distinctive ululating at the end of certain phrases, a very strong elongating of the syllables that characterize the cante, but in a way that appears more like a plaintive and anguished cry, and politicized lyrical content.

There is a lot of material in this set, four-and-half hours worth, but most of it consists of rare instances of traditional pieces recorded in small flamenco clubs in Andalucia, the cradle of the form, and this is a paramount reason to shell out for the whole set, though the individual discs are available from Nimbus.  Those who favor the guitar work over the vocals would be advised to search out the Flamenco de la Frontera disc from Paco del Gastor, or the several albums on Nimbus from Paco Peña, another giant of the flamenco guitar.

For this listener, relatively new to the music, though, the vocals seem essential in conveying the passion and intensity as reflected in the cante that is ultimately the heart and soul of flamenco.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Black Uhuru: The Dub Factor

It was probably Fall 1984, not long after this blogger saw Black Uhuru open a wondrous double bill with the phenomenal King Sunny Ade, when I bought this album on vinyl.  From the first listen, the recording made a huge impression because it was the first of many excursions into the heart of dub, that amazing offshoot of reggae featuring a wide palette of processed sounds injected into the instrumental mix of a song, with occasional samples of the vocals by lead singer Michael Rose and backing vocalists Puma Jones and founder Duckie Simpson.
When reggae shifted gears into dancehall and other genres after the mid-80s, it was years before I went and bought a CD version of this album and all of the great memories of the sonic experience flooded back.  Recently, several albums of choice dub from the likes Augustus Pablo, King Tubby, Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Trojan Records label have rekindled that interest in the outer limits of reggae that dub embodies.

Black Uhuru's The Dub Factor is a reworking of tracks, largely from the great Chill Out album from 1982, which immediately preceded this dub masterpiece.  A few songs, principally "Youth" and "Puffed Out" from Red's "Youth of Eglington" and "Puff She Puff" come from other sources.  The 2003 remastered version adds three tracks, including takes on "Carbine" and "Journey", also from Red, a take on the title track from Chill Out called "Destination Unknown."

As great as the dubs are with the echo, reverb and other effects rendered to the instrumental backbone of these songs, as well as the disembodied vocal samples, the greatness of Black Uhuru, in addition to the excellent musicians and the preeminent Riddim Twins of Robbie Shakespeare (Basspeare) and Sly Dunbar (Drumbar), was the top-notch songwriting of Rose.  He wrote so many memorable songs for the band in that first half of the 80s, when classic reggae was gradually giving way to a digital movement and Black Uhuru reigned as the supreme band in the genre after the untimely demise of Bob Marley.

In addition to the production skills of Dunbar and Shakespeare, who embraced the technological movement to electronics through syndrums and other devices, this album is testament to the skill of Paul "Groucho" Smykle, an Island Records producer, who remixed the record.  Even though The Dub Factor has a crystalline sound benefiting from the latest in studio wizardry, the album delves deeply into the dub aesthetic, combining the studio sheen with a sense of audio adventure.

Following this recording, Black Uhuru issued one more album, 1985's Anthem, which won the first Grammy for a reggae album.  Yet, there was a lack of passion, energy and urgency to that ultra-sleek sounding record that was a precursor to Rose leaving the group.  Though there were several versions of the band over the years, Black Uhuru never again approached anywhere near the heights of its early 80s heyday.  Rose was away from the scene for a time and then returned with dancehall-infused solo albums that sold decently, but were a far cry from his peak as a socially-conscious crusader.  For a brief period a decade ago, Rose rejoined Black Uhuru, but it was a very brief reunion.

It's hard to believe that it has been over 30 years since that record was first heard by this blogger, but its qualities as a landmark in reggae and dub are as obvious as ever.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ornette Coleman: Town Hall, 1962

The death of the great Ornette Coleman yesterday at age 85 means the loss of another master of creative musical expression, not just in jazz, but in all music.

This blogger has vivid memories of buying, in the same day in 1990, John Coltrane's My Favorite Things and an album of Atlantic outtakes from Coleman's years there, The Art of the Improvisors, especially its opening, frenetic "The Circle with a Hole in the Middle."  That recording let quickly to purchases of such classics as The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, Free Jazz and many others.

Coleman's approach to harmony, his melodic sense, and the total freedom given to the musicians to play what felt right, provided they were listening and responding to each other, was revolutionary, drawing scorn and appreciation across the spectrum.

While his influence wasn't such that covers of his pieces are very common, outside of a few iconic tracks like "Lonely Woman" or the rare tribute album, like John Zorn's amazing Spy vs. Spy, his legacy is perhaps best represented in the spirit of expression that the murkily-defined concept of harmolodics, in which harmony is given equal weight with melody in the context of free expression concerning time, rhythm and other structures, embodied.

Now, in 1990, this listener, new to jazz, did not appreciate much of these notions, but was drawn to the playful, celebratory, light and crisp sounds of those Atlantic recordings that were made at the peak of Coleman's notoriety.

Of course, Coleman continued to probe, explore and express through his years at Blue Note, Columbia and then on to his electric group, Prime Time, and more modern pursuits, including the remarkable Sound Grammar, the fantastic collaboration with Pat Metheny, Sound X, and the little-discussed duet with Joachim Kuhn, Colors, a rare instance of the use of piano in Coleman's music.  That live recording in Leipzig from the mid-1990s represented Coleman's unceasing explorations in instrumentation, as well as sound, and may have had a precursor from over thirty years before.

This was the Town Hall concert of 21 December 1962, recorded by Blue Note Records, but then released on the fledgling ESP-Disk label, which went on to a notable career of releasing free jazz, underground rock and other cutting edge sounds.  Having left Atlantic and not feeling appreciated for his utterly original approach to music, Coleman decided to use his own limited funds to rent New York's Town Hall and present a concert that took evolving ideas of composition and expression to a level beyond what he had done at Atlantic.  Bernard Stollman, who founded ESP-Disk, was also Coleman's manager at the time.

He had the perfect rhythm section for his new phase in drummer Charles Moffett, whose cymbal work in particular was notable, as well as the stunning bassist David Izenzon, whose clasically-dervived bowing technique was phenomenal in addition to his pizzicato playing.  On this record, there are two short pieces, "Doughnut" and "Sadness," in which these two masters utilized their individual and collective strengths to give Coleman a new palette of textures and colors from which to solo.

"Dedication to Poets and Writers," written for a string quartet played by violinists Selwart Clark and Nathan Goldstein, celloist Kermit Moore and Julian Barber on viola, was Coleman's first attempt at a notated piece along classical lines.  Coleman had been involved in a project of so-called Third Stream music, blending modernist classical music with jazz, through its most noted promoter, Gunther Schuller, in which the composer wrote "Abstractions" specifically for Coleman.

Remco Takken's notes point out that Izenzon's classical training and approach to bowing on his double bass provide a bridge between the string quartet and the trio performances at this show and this listener totally agrees that what could have been disparate, jarring contrasts became more of an organic, unified program because of Izenzon's way of playing.  Coleman's approach to harmolodics, which was always being refined and redeveloped, is also detectable on close listening.

"The Ark" probably represents the closest linkage between the trio and string quartet sections of the concert.  A sprawling, multi-faceted, and fascinating excursion into all the tools Coleman had to offer at the time, the piece really is a stunning effort, with Coleman exploring the full range of his alto, Moffett using his highly effective and understated approach, even on his fine soloing, on the kit, highlighted by his shimmering cymbal work, and Izenzon demonstrating why he was a marvel of playing the bass in both the arco and pizzicato styles.

Coleman, however, was thoroughly demoralized by the conditions surrounding his music in terms of what he felt was a lack of appreciation as well as financial concerns and went on a self-imposed hiatus from public performance and recording that lasted two years.  During 1963 and 1964, however, he worked busily on his compositional approaches through harmolodics and looked for new ways of expression through learning two new instruments.  Although his technique was rough, the emotive content of his playing on trumpet and violin added new dimensions of sound, in terms of color and texture.  These are, probably, best exemplified by the stunning recordings from the Golden Circle in Copenhagen from 1965, released on Blue Note.

As a document that was, simultaneously the end of an era from the big splash he made in New York in 1959 and the harbinger of a new phase that was delayed for a couple of years, Town Hall, 1962 is probably, along with a record like Colors, among the least appreciated of Coleman's half-century of recorded work.

Listening to this album tonight evokes clear recollections of the 1990 trio performance (intended to be a reunion of the 1959 quartet, but trumpeter Don Cherry had to bow out because of the flu) at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles during Peter Sellars' Los Angeles Festival.  Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins were certainly different in their approaches as the rhythm section, but the full integration of drummer and bass player with the leader is striking in both cases.

Finally, from the perspective of remembrance, this blogger is grateful to have heard Coleman in one of his last local performances, at UCLA's Royce Hall nearly five years ago.  It was typically probing, with two bassists, Coleman's son Denardo playing with great mastery on the drumkit (amazing that his father was derided for using his 10-year old son, along with the late, great Charlie Haden on bass, on 1966's The Empty Foxhole), a Japanese singer employing wordless and otherworldly vocals, and then, for a couple pieces, bassist Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers but also a huge jazz fan, joining the quartet and showing that his jazz chops were substantial.

Even at 80, Coleman demonstrated his lifelong commitment to expressing, fully and freely, the wonder of sound.  That may be his legacy:  taking himself, his fellow musicians, and listeners on an uncharted journey into the ineffable joys of music.

Now, as "The Ark" has just ended and the applause fades, this is the time to say to Ornette Coleman, one of the great creative artists of our time, rest in peace and thank you for sharing your wonder with us.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerti for Harpsichords, Recorders, Flute and Violins

This excellent recording on the Naxos label by the Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helnut Müller-Brühl features four concertos by the great composer with emphasis on the lighter-sounding instruments of harpsichord, recorder, flute and violin.  With all of the harmonic richness and melodic expressiveness representative of the baroque style mastered by Bach, the disc provides a great cross-section of concertos, an area of Bach's work which received relatively scant attention compared to his organ and clavier (pre-piano) work.

The Concerto in A Minor for harpsichord, violin and flute is, as the liner notes observe, a companion piece of the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, a famed series, though it is in a slower tempo and with a more restrained sense of dynamics.  Copies of the score, however, are from students who made their transcriptions after Bach's death in 1750, so estimates place the composition at around 1740.

The Concerto in F major for two recorders and harpsichord is immediately familiar with its bright and famed melody being the precursor of the fourth Brandenburg Concerto.  Dating also to about 1740, the work includes a single violin part reproduced on the harpsichord, while it is fascinating to hear the complement of recorders with violin.

Utilizing three harpsichords, the Concerto in D Minor is complicated and brisk piece and appears to date to 1730.  It was also said to be a featured piece for the master and two sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, to perform.  The second movement is slower and more stately with a lilting dance movement guiding it.  Finally, the third movement, performed in a fugue form, is a dense and uplifting one, providing a nice closure to the piece.

The final of the four concertos is in C is also for three harpsichords, though it is performed with violins here.  Two separate works are combined here and the performance is very beautiful with the sweeping grace of the violins contrasting with the crisp sounds of the keyboards.  A simpler, more subdued second movement has a slower tempo and a yearning melody of great emotional content.  Returning to a faster tempo and more complex harmonization, much like in the first movement, the third contains pretty performances on the violin and provide an excellent way to end a very entertaining disc.

Bach's amazing compositions with their palette of refined harmonics, gorgeous melodies, and demands placed on the soloists and accompanying musicians is on full display and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra deserves kudos for their sensitive renderings of these fine works.