Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial: His Complete Victor Recordings

Jelly Roll Morton was a supreme self-promoter, claiming he was the inventor of jazz at the age of 14 in 1904 and evincing a unyielding swagger about his piano playing abilities.  This three-disc set of recordings he made from 1926 to 1939, though, affirms the reality that he was one of the great musicians of any stamp of his era.

Whether it was high-flying uptempo blowers or the deeply soulful blues, Morton and his very talented bands created a body of work that may have been second only to Louis Armstrong in 1920s jazz, especially in those peak years in 1926-27 when he and his Red Hot Peppers were on a major roll (pardon the pun.)

With some of Armstrong's sidemen, like banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Johnny Dodds and his brother, drummer Baby Dodds, Morton could hardly have anything but success.  There are a lot of lesser names in the Hot Peppers lineups, but they were all excellent musicians who made the most of their opportunity to be in a great band.  But, Morton clearly had a firm hand as leader, because these bands were highly disciplined, tight and possessed great talent.

Then, there was Morton on the piano, playing with great assurance, skill, rhythm, power and passion, but also recognizing that the greatness of his bands meant he didn't have to dominate with his playing, but could use ensemble strength to take the music to a higher level.  When he plays, though, it is a wonder.

There are, for this listener, two real treats beyond the great ensemble work.  One is the recording of two takes of "Wolverine Blues" and one of "Mr. Jelly Lord" in a trio with the Dodds brothers from June 1927.  The other is his late work, after nine years away from the recording studio, with his New Orleans Jazzmen in September 1939, just as the Second World War was beginning.  On these works, he had the amazing Sidney Bechet on soprano sax, his longtime drummer Zutty Singleton, and the fine clarinet player Albert Nicholas along with others.  Morton remained in excellent form, as well, though he was less than two years away from dying.

There are some amusing novelties with comedic spoken introductions like "Sidewalk Blues" and "Dead Man Blues," as well as classics like "Black Bottom Stomp." "Dr. Jazz," "The Chant," "Grandpa's Spells," "Original Jelly Roll Blues," the amazing, "The Pearls," and many more.  The ensemble interplay, short but choice soloing, and Morton's compositional and arranging skills are really something to behold.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Witold Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra/Three Poems/Mi-Parti

This excellent Naxos disc featuring the work of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) comprises his majestic, folk-tinged "Concerto for Orchestra" and the serial-based "Mi-Parti" performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit, and "Three Poems," another twelve-tone type work by the Camerata Silesia, directed by Anna Szostak.

It is readily acknowledged that the "Concerto for Orchestra" from 1954 reflects a "neo-classical" bent with leanings towards the work of the great Bela Bartok.  It also has much of the grandeur of Romantic-era symphonic works with modern takes on rhythm and harmony.  The remarkable third movement, over twice as long as the preceding two, is a wonderful ride through a sweeping array of themes and emotional content, admirably perfomed by the orchestra.

There is an interesting and notable contrast with the 22-minute "Three Poems by Henri Michaux," which premiered in 1963, obviously beginning with the use of a chorale.  But, it is also the use of poetry from a French surrealist that marks a shift in Lutoslawski's sonic palette.  The composer is quoted in the liners as stating that Michaux's work allowed the composer "to remain absolutely natural as a musician, while following the form of his poetry, because of its formal and rhythmic variety."  It was also noted in the liners that Lutoslawski "set out to find verses that in some way would be near" the form of the composition he already had in mind.  To the composer, "the word is united with the music, that they form a fusion" and that "music adds to the word."

The poetry is from three works, "Thoughts," which is rooted in doubt and uncertainty (thoughts wonderfully swimming / who glide in us, between us, far from us / far from enlightening us, far from understanding); "The Great Contest," with its visceral language, (He seizes him and throws him down on the ground / He drags him and assaults him / He pracks him and mauls him and makes him squeal / He trashes him and mashes him) and consonant sonic barrage and harshly articulated vocalizing; and "Rest in Misfortune," which looks inward as the poet implores Misfortune to "sit down, rest, let us rest a little, you and I, rest, you find me, you try me, you prove me it.  I am your downfall."

The work of such composers as Stockhausen and Xenakis come to mind when hearing much of "Three Poems" though only in the broadest sense and with "The Great Contest" especially.  "Rest in Misfortune" is calm, contemplative and a world away from its predecessor.

"Mi-Parti" from 1976 is a single movement orchestral piece based on Lutoslawski's finding a definition of the title as "composed of two equal but unlike parts," though the "partition" is not binary, but involves several "threads" in which "each of them develops while interfering one with the other and represent an action."  Each starts slowly and builts to a heightened state of activity, with the composer highlighting "color rather in spite of myself" as he used that ambiguous word to try to depict what happens acoustically in the music with respect to "warm" and "cold" elements that swirl in a polyphony of symphonic sound.  The building of activity, dynamic tempo changes and interesting instrumentation to create those "colors" make this a compelling and exciting work.

The "Overture for Strings" is a short 5-minute piece from 1949 that also has shades of Bartok and the writer of the notes, Andrzej Chlopecki, uses the interesting phrase that "the composer wanted to create a super-complete symphonic aphorism" in which only those elements needed are used and that the aphoristic concept is marked by "extreme economy" but without being "ascetic."  With a trio of themes that are very different in technical approach, this overture says a great deal, but no more than necessary, in a relatively short period of time.

One of the most interesting of "modern" composers, Lutoslawski's work is experimental, but highly accessible and this disc shows a range of pieces that distinctly represents his striking output.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea

This remarkable triple-disc set created from the fieldwork over decades by Steven Feld from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings covers the intersection of traditional and modern musics generated from the Bosavi people, who inhabit a remote region of Papua New Guinea that was largely isolated from the outside world prior to 1970, when oil exploation and evangelical Christian missionary activity entered their insulated world.

The first disc captures the gentle guitar-based music that has enveloped Bosavi since outside contact was established.  The titanic changes to their society from the 1970s onward, but especially during the 1980s, includes connections to education, Christianity, outside employment and other elements, including exposure to other forms of music and instruments.

Consequently, the recordings from 1994 to 1999 capture a sound that had only been in the making for about a decade previously, anchored by a lead singer, usually female, backing vocals from a few males, and the lilting and folksy playing of guitars and, sometimes, ukulele and percussion, also played by men, who mainly compose the pieces.  These expressions of gita gisalo (literally, "guitar songs") are plaintive and captivating.

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The second disc, from recordings made in 1977, covers "Sounds and Songs of Everyday Life," dealing with joint work done within the community, including the building of a bridge, a woman calming a crying baby while making sago (a starch derived from the sago palm tree) or clearing space in the rainforest for a garden.  Other performnces are from people relaxing and enjoying each other's company--a reminder that for most of human history and in many places today, music is not to be distinguished much, if at all, from everyday activities.  The disc ends with a nearly half-hour "composite soundscape" captured in a Bosavi village during a twenty-four hour period in 1982.  Much of these pieces are reminiscent, to this listener, of the music from the Mbuti pygmies in the rainforests of central Africa, covered in this blog not long ago.

While the everyday songs were still being performed regularly at the time these recordings were made, the pieces tied to traditional Bosavi ritual and ceremony were rapidly dying out, due principally to aggressive evangelizing efforts.  Examples here include the mournful and very affecting funerary weeping songs, group ceremonial efforts for seances involving spirits, work songs, general leisure, the ritual killing of pigs and poetic texts paying homage to features of the rich natural world in the Bosavi's land.

The eighty-page booklet is filled with detail on the Bosavi, their history, their music and the individual songs and performances over the three discs.  There is also a gallery of photos depicting the Bosavi and their land.  Particularly noteworthy for this listener was the "Brief History of Bosavi Encounters" which discusses the massive changes affecting the Bosavi in recent decades. much of which has turned the worldview of these people upside down and the consequences of which are still in flux.

That's what makes this set so interesting from a musical and historical perspective--it is a striking document of the conflicts inherent in the exposure of traditional societies to modern forces.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Orchestra Terrestrial: Here and Everywhere

Recorded sporadically over 2000 and the early part of 2001, this ambient release on the small underground German label, Die Stadt, by Richard H. Kirk under his Orchestra Terrestrial guise is a beautiful and beguiling work.  Kirk has stated that inspiration from classical music led him to pursue this project, which includes a 2011 followup called Umladen.

The first track, "Low Definition Alpine Drift," is a haunting tune of multi-layered electronic sound moving rhythmically but without percussion as the piece, indeed, drifts in unsettled, yet beautiful atmospheres.

"Einflug" (German for "entry" in the sense of aircraft entering and leaving an airport or airfield) does, however, have a percussive element, an echoed electronic pulse over a higher-pitched drone and a legato series of tones before a darker, more sinister drone enters in on occasion.

"Kristall" ("Crystal") has another complex multi-layered series of grouped tones and simple percussive elements at various pitches.  The piece almost takes the listener on an uncharted journey.  There is a stronger, faster sense of rhythm here for most of the piece, though there is an interlude that mainly features drones.  A flute-like melodic theme gives more buyoancy to this track than others on the recording.

"Abends" ("Evenings") is a very muted and simple piece at the outset with a dreamy six-tone theme that is echoed by a sustained tone in another track, with these repeating until a very quiet series of tones and drones comes in at about 1:30.  At about 2:30 a more direct, louder drone enters, demonstrating Kirk's knack for carefully layering sound to broaden and deepen his pieces.  At around 3:50, there seems to be a processed snippet of a symphonic classical piece that lends an ominous element.  This track is a fine counterpoint to "Kristall."

"Glitzerstrahl" (which appears to mean something like a flittering ray of light) repeats a common thematic element, laid out in a repetitive three-toned manner, with a slow descending series of tones intermingled.  Later, there are a variety of disparate elements, some light percussive sounds, drones, clustered tones and more processed orchestral snippets to break up the repetition.

In "Near Earth Object," there is more of a percussive feel here, with cymbal-like sounds, scratchy paired snare-like "taps" and others to follow drones with varying textures.  There's even a bit of guitar-type sounds in the piece and more of what appears to be those processed recordings of orchestral performances.  A nifty seven-tone thematic element is added to the mix later in the piece.

"Senses and Functions" has a four-tone percussive theme with sharp but quiet cymbal washes and louder percussive components to create a compelling and rhythmical foundation.  A sustained wash of electronic sound comes in at about 1:20 and it rises and falls continuously until another recorded snippet of symphonic music comes in and out.  A two-toned element, followed by a louder single-tone repetition and a louder, sprouting drones enter in with some percussion, another stellar example of Kirk's way of developing complex, multi-layered soundscapes.

The last track, "Uniform Spaces," is mainly an example of the highly-arpeggiated work that he further developed years later on his Richard H. Kirk and the Arpeggio 13 recording, Anonymized, also from 2011.  The various themes, rhythmic and percussive elements, and recorded snippets found elsewhere on the album are processed through that arpeggiated mix.  While it might seem out of place, this track also reminds me of what Kirk did with the experimental Cabaret Voltaire remix "C.O.M.A." in the mid-Eighties, but with different tools.

Here and Everywhere is one of the most interesting, carefully-constructed and fully-developed ambient recordings this listener considers Richard H. Kirk has done in his long and varied career.  It has been a steady favorite for nearly fifteen years.  A word should also be said about the remarkable packaging by The Designers Republic, which includes a half-dozen postcards of digital art works by Naked Art.  In dark gray, with light gray lettering, the paper gatefold sleeve elegantly echoes the music and the cards are distinctive, reflecting the care and consideration put into this remarkable recording.