Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners

Recorded in late 1956 and released on the Riverside label early the following year, Brilliant Corners is, indeed, a brilliant album by the great Thelonious Monk.  It has amazing compositions, a fantastic roster of musicians, and the composer/pianist at the peak of his powers.

All five tracks are standouts, with four originals, the closing "Bemsha Swing" was co-written with drummer Denzil Best, and the fantastic solo spotlight for Monk being the stadard "I Surrender Dear."

The title track is memorable for its opening theme statement, the jagged lines from the masterful tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and the tightness of the band, including altoist Ernie Henry, a little-known player, and the legendary Oscar Peterson on bass and incomparable drummer Max Roach.

"Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are" is, aside from its well-known idiosyncratic title, another classic melody shaped in a relaxed and uplifting blues format.  Rollins really gets the opportunity to show why he was a powerhouse in that mid to late Fifties era.

"Pannonica" opens with Monk playing a celeste, which just happened to be in the studio and it gives a distinctive touch to the tune, which has another remarkable theme statement to set up the soloists.

"I Surrender Dear" features the leader in all of his glory as an utterly unique pianist and working his magic with a maudlin theme before the band, joined by the excellent trumpeter Clark Terry, and Miles Davis' youthful, powerful bassist Paul Chambers replacing Pettiford, puts it all together with the staggering "Bemsha Swing," where Rollins again blows the mind, as does Monk.

There are many great Thelonious Monk recordings from the early Blue Note years on down, but Brilliant Corners might be the peak because all the elements of great songwriting and masterful playing are demonstrated at every turn.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gustav Mahler: Symphony #8

Titled by the impresario who organized its 1910 premiere, the "Symphony of a Thousand," the eighth and final symphony of Gustav Mahler is a staggering achievement in that, even though there were 1,028 persons involved in its performance, the piece isn't overbearing or chaotic.

Mahler wrote the works in just a couple of months in Summer 1906 with the orchestration finished the next year.  The first movement came by accident, as Mahler wrote to a friend that "an old book fell into my hand and I chanced upon the hymn 'Veni, Creator Spiritus."  With this allure to a composer already imbued with deep spiritual feeling, the composer noted that "at a single stroke I saw the only thing—not only the opening theme, but the whole first movement, and as an answer to it I could imagine nothing more beautiful than Goëthe's text in the scene with the anchorites."

This latter reference was the 53-minute "Final Scene from Faust," including a 19-minute orchestral introduction, a short (especially for the expansive Mahler) eight-and-a-half minute middle section, and the imposing final section, spanning 29-minutes.  Notably, while many composers based pieces on Goëthe's masterwork by focusing on the title character's damnation through the manipulations of Mephistopheles, a.k.a., the Devil, Mahler was drawn instead by the second part's apotheosis of Faust.

Mahler was so enraptured by his conception, feeling that it was the culmination of his life's work and his masterpiece, that he wrote, "just imaging that the universe is beginning to sound and to ring.  It is no longer human voices, but circling planets and suns."  It would be decades before music invoking the cosmos became the order of the day, but here was Mahler ascending into the heavens to make his final musical statement.

This 1991 recording from the Telarc label features the orchestra and chorus of the Atlanta Symphony, conducted by Robert Shaw, with solos by eight principal vocalists, including the well-known soprano Deborah Voigt.  There is also the Atlanta Boy Choir, the Ohio State University Chorale and Symphonic Choir, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and members of the University of South Florida chorus to round out the huge roster of performers.

To this untrained ear, the performances are excellent, the sound is full and rich, and the conducting brings out the core of the spiritual explorations and ecstacies developed by Mahler in the course of the massive 80-minute work.

Frankly, taking on the task of listening to this opus at one sitting has not been quite the challenge envisioned when the disc was first bought and there have been two full listenings in the last few days.  Mahler's ability to provide a wide range of symphonic sound and the partnering of choral singing with orchestral performance allows the music to move along in such a way that it doesn't really seem like nearly an hour and a half has elapsed before this magesterial work sounds its last lingering note.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Mexico: Fiestas of Chiapas and Oaxaca

Recorded for the amazing Nonesuch Explorer series in 1976 by David Lewiston, who traveled the world to capture the music of indigenous peoples and musical traditions, Mexico: Fiestas of Chiapas and Oaxaca is a great document of those mestizos of the southern part of the country who have been clinging to historic musical styles and performance techniques blending native Indian practices with those emanating from the Spanish conquest and afterward.

Flutes, marimbas, harps, guitars, violins, brass instruments and a variety of percussion instruments are featured on the fourteen brief selections, which provide an overview of the types of musics to be heard in local fiestas in villages and hamlets throughout the two states.  The music tends to be somewhat medium waltz-like tempo, often with a martial beat, and the performances on marimba and flute, in particular, are striking and beautiful.

The remarkable "K'in Sventa Ch'ul Me'Tik Kwadulupe," a ritual in Chamula, a village in the mountains of Chiapas, features chanted and sung prayers, a flowing harp and rhythm guitars, with a concluding set of prayers to the instruments and an invitation for the musicians to rest after the ritual.

A highlight of the disc is the lengthier (five and a half minutes) "Christmas in Oaxaca," in which brass instruments, caroling and percussion capture the festiveness of the holiday season, complete with the joyous shouts of spectators.  As recorded in the streets, the piece can almost transport you to a plaza, or zocalo, and place you in the middle of the celebrations.

Chanta Vielma's guitar and beautiful vocals on "Nuoco" constitute another peak of this fine recording from Pinotepa Nacional, Oaxaca, in which Vielma sings the praises of his hometown.  He is followed by an upbeat rendition of a son alegre in which brass instruments are accompanied by an electric guitar and martial percussion, courtesy of musicians from Pinotepa Nacional.

Another gorgeous guitar-based tune is "Cantares de mi Tierra," from Ismael Salud Gonzalez from Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, as he, too, sings, with great skill, about the beauties of his isthmus land near the Pacific.   On a spit of land along the coast not far from Tehuantepec is the fishing village of San Mateo del Mar and the closing piece is a dance featuring martial drums and violin that represents the indigenous Indians on one hand and the conquistadores on the other, with La Malincha, the native consort of Hernán Cortéz as the titular figure.

Sometimes it's the most simple of musics that are the most affecting, honest and authentic and the closer the pieces are to the activities of daily life, the more that rustic performances can bring out the emotional core of what music is.  Mexico: Fiestas of Chiapas and Oaxaca is a fantastic document of rural music from parts of Mexico that are unknown to most outsiders--this blogger included.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Cocteau Twins: Heaven or Las Vegas

This blogger can remember very clearly the surprise--no, shock--at hearing a song from Cocteau Twins on a pop radio station while in a Target store back in 1988.  Having been a fan of the group for a few years by then, it was surreal to find this "cult" group being played along with whatever ruled the airwaves twenty-seven years ago.

The reason was that the band had signed an American record deal with Capitol, while maintaining their English tie with 4AD, and the song heard on the radio, "Carolyn's Fingers," was from the first release under the new deal, Blue Bell Knoll, a fine record.  Not long after, the band toured the U.S. and seeing them live in Hollywood in 1990 was quite an experience.

The next album, Heaven or Las Vegas, is about a flawless a recording as this great band could have made.  The production values were, certainly, better; Elizabeth Fraser's voice was in top form; he lyrics were actually becoming discernible from time-to-time; and the band's approach to writing 3-4 minute (excepting two longer pieces of 5 minutes or so) gems of atmospheric, lush and compelling songs was at its apex.

It's hard to pick highlights on an album so filled with excellent songs.  The opener, "Cherry Coloured Funk" starts with Fraser singing lines in a lower tone before her double-tracked chorus moves to a gorgeous higher register chorus.  "Pitch the Baby" is a shift in sound--simpler, more direct, and less of the ethereal sound that had been the band's trademark with a funkier bass line by Simon Raymonde than had been offered previously.

"Iceblink Luck" is one of the band's better-known pieces, with a sinewy and fluid bass and Robin Guthrie's understated rhythm guitar undergirding Fraser's crystalline vocal and another double-tracked chorus, which actually offers some clearly-heard vocals ("you're really both sad turns" and "that will burn this whole madhouse down", for example.)

As the band began moving more toward sounds that reflected the electronica that was dominating much of the music scene at the time, "Fifty-Fifty Clown," was an example of the growing interest, but with Fraser's voice (again, more double-tracking here to allow high and low register complemented voicings) adding a human warmth that really harmonizes well with the instrumental.

"Heaven or Las Vegas" is a gorgeous song.  It starts off simply and then builds as Fraser's voice soars in the chorus and Guthrie and Raymonde provide that reliable backing to support and rise up with her.  At just under five minutes, the tune is really a masterpiece of putting all the right pieces together, including a very nice bridge and a rare Guthrie solo that fits perfectly with the movement of the piece.

"I Wear Your Ring" is another primarily electronic piece, but here Raymonde's bass stands out with its fluid, flowing line as the dominant instrumental element.  Fraser sings beautifully here, as she moves into that higher-register chorus (yes, double-tracked!) and then a highly-memorable bridge, which is repeated to close out this excellent song.

To this listener this is where the album starts to hit its heights.  "Fotzepolitic" really soars with Raymonde's bass underpinning one of Fraser's prettiest melodies.  Here, the band perfects the basic instrumental underpinnings allowing for Fraser's singing to take center stage, as it needed to do.

"Wolf in the Breast" is a beautiful ballad, with Guthrie's guitar setting the stage for another memorable vocal performance.  A haunting guitar done drifts over the piece to add a little touch of atmosphere and then there the bridge has a rumbling drum machine and a delicate guitar line to add variety to a standout track.

Raymonde's memorable bass line in "Road, River and Rail" really holds the piece together as Fraser sings with great simplicity and mounfulness.  Notably, there are no dominant multi-tracked vocals (a bit of overlapping, though) here at all and this serves the tune well.  Guthrie provides more drone over his trebly rhythm work and it is executed very nicely.

"Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires" starts off in a very subdued fashion with a piano line supporting Fraser's higher-register singing and then builds, with stronger drum patterns and more pronounced, if light, rhythm guitar from Guthrie to push the song forward to a little heavier territory, with a softer bridge for a change of pace.

After Treasure, this may be Cocteau Twins' finest record, though some who prefer the pre-1987 phase of the band will offer Head over Heels as a better album.  All said, Heaven or Las Vegas is a real gem from a group that was in its own sonic world for a fifteen-year career of memorable music.