Monday, May 30, 2016

Sam Rivers: Crystals

The great multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers is remarkably underappreciated, perhaps partly because he created some of his greatest work during the period when jazz was at its lowest point of appreciation in the late 1960s and onward.

Crystals was released in 1974 by Impulse!, the so-called label that John Coltrane built, and it is a towering achievement, compositionally and in terms of performance.

On the first point, Rivers was a master at using melody, rhythm, harmony, instrumental interplay, tempo and chord structures in a way that both recognized jazz tradition with a forward-thinking mentality that seems fresh today.

With regard to the second, this was Rivers' first album using orchestral accompaniment and he made the best possible use of a massive number of instrumentalists.  But, rather than overcrowd the pieces, the leader's marshaling of his orchestral resources is such that there is a perfect balance of fullness, richness and power that makes the most of his excellent writing.

In the lines, Rivers stated that he wrote the six pieces between 1959 and 1972, with one track "Exultation" being the sole piece from emanating from the earlier period, as  "conceived in 1959 and completed in 1964" and he wrote that he often worked on many pieces at a given time, or, rather, spent time on one, put it aside, and then worked on others, before coming back to the first, often many years later.

The rest of the tracks were more recent, from 1967 on, and it is interesting to note that Rivers stated "the compositions on this album were chosen at random.  They could have been any one or sections of more than thirty compositions which have been performed in the New York area, by groups of size ranging from sextet to thirty-five musicians."

In fact, Rivers had recently formed his RivBea Orchestra (the second part of the first word being the name of his wife Bea) and was devoting more of his attention to working with large ensembles at a loft in New York.

Significantly, Rivers' notes refer to the many unusual, fluid and dynamic forces at work in this amazing music.  In "Tranquility", the tune is "atonal in concept, with 120 bars of written music with an improvised introduction and ending". With "Postlude", the music comprises "a dense constantly changing mass, each instrument with forty or more bars in its statement, each ending at a different place, then repeating—endless repetition of parts with different entrances produces the ever-changing sound of the whole."  And, in "Bursts—Orb—Earth Song", there are "other instruments entering at given times, some written, others improvised, creating a continuous acceleration to a peak."

These are some prime examples of the complex and ever-changing nature of the composer working with a large group of musical resources in personnel and instruments, as well as compositional technique, to create a masterpiece.

Among the musicans are multi-instrumentalist Paul Jeffrey, who headed an octet and worked with Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington; trumpeter Ted Daniel, a sideman for Archie Shepp, Sonny Sharrock and Dewey Redman, as well as his own groups; trombonist Charles Greenlee, a frequent player with Shepp; trummpeter Richard Williams, whose background included stints with Oliver Nelson, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, and Jaki Byard; and drummer Warren Smith, who was in the Gil Evans Orchestra and Max Roach's percussion ensenble M'Boom; and others.

Rivers also thanked a roster of musicians who were on this album and performed other of his works, leading some reviewers to think all of them played on Crystals, though only some did.  In any case, it's an impressive list of players.

The 2002 release on disc, in a mimi-LP sleeve, features updated sound to further enhance the experience of a landmark recording.  Some day, hopefully, Sam Rivers will get the attention he is due--as a performer on saxophones, flute and piano and as a composer of the highest abilities.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Györgi Ligeti: Works for Piano, Vol. 3

This amazing recording features the first two books of Ligeti's Etudes for Piano, representing later work from the 1980s and onward, the Musica Ricercata from the early 1950s, and a brief etude from 1995 and the third etude book.

It is an illustration of Ligeti's penchant for building upon a traditional form with a highly personalized modern style, as well as the phenomenal playing of Pierre-Laurent Aimard.  There is a great deal of complexity in tempos, range, expressiveness and power in these works, especially the etudes, and in the hands of Aimard, the pieces are staggering in their conception and execution.  As a Sony Classical production, the sound is also top-notch and heard on headphones, the album is more exceptional from the standpoint of the clarity.

It is also illustrative to read Ligeti's notes about why he composed etudes:
The initial impetus was, above all, my own inadequate piano technique. . .I would love to be a fabulous pianist!  I know a lot about nuances of attack, phrasing, rubato, formal structure.  And I absolutely love to play piano, but only for myself . . . that's what I would like to achieve: the transformation of inadequacy into professionalism.  I lay my ten fingers on the keyboard and imagine music.  My fingers copy this mental image as I press the keys, but this copy is inexact: a feedback emerges between idea and tactile/motor execution . . . the result sounds completely different from my initial conceptions: the anatomical reality of my hands and the configuration of the piano keyboard have transformed my imaginary constructs . . . I call for support upon the four great composers who thought pianistically: Scarlatti, Chopin, Schumann, and Debussy.
Ligeti also highlights the polyphony employed in ensemble playing in Africa, specifically Uganda, Malawi and other nations and the playing of the mbira (highlighted here before) and other similar instruments that bear a relation to the piano.  Colin Nancarrow, another major modern composer, and the jazz pianists Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans are also mentioned as influences when it comes to the uniqueness of the playing and writing of each.

He also briefly discusses the Musica Ricercata as devolving from his devotion to twelve-tone music as well as his appreciation for Bartok and Stravinsky, noting that that the first of the eleven pieces has two tones transposed through octaves and then each adds another tone, so that the final has all twelve.  As Ligeti states, the suite comprises
A severe, almost noble piece, hovering between academic orthodoxy and deep reflection: between gravity and caricature.
To go from the later etudes back to the early twelve-tone work is to see how much a composer can evolve over the course of a long, fruitful career.  For an amateur seeking a greater appreciation for the range of works for the highly expressive piano, this album was a real eye-opener.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Dr. L. Subramaniam: Three Ragas for Solo Violin

This is another stellar release in the "Indian Classical Masters" series from Nimbus Records, issued in 1991, of the beautiful and technically superior work of violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam coming out of the Carnatic music tradition of southern India.

Subramaniam was a child prodigy, giving his first solo violin performance at the age of six, and mastered not only the indigenous music of his homeland, but also received a master's degree in Western classical music.  He has composed music that fuses the Indian and western forms with his hybrid works performed throughout Europe, the United States and in India.

Obviously, the violin, as a western instrument, came late to India, being introduced, according to the informative liner notes in the early 1800s, though its use as a solo instrument has come in the post-World War II era.

The three ragas performed here are ranging from 20 to 25 minutes in length, giving Subramaniam the fullest opportunity to develop the melodic elements of the pieces and then to employ a great variety of improvised variations, accompanied by the tambura (drone) of Narendra Kotiyan.  Throughout, Subramaniam's playing is gorgeous, complex and rich with often thrilling technical displays of virtuosity performed with great precision and control, but also emotionalism.

As explained by Dr. John Marr, Carnatic music (which has been featured here before), has seven degrees in an octave with a variety of talas, or time measures, employed.  There are six dozen scales, or melakartas, in the tradition that are formed from the basis of six patterns that refer to hours and minutes and then  the augmentation of these.  Half come from the "hour and minute" examples and the other half from the augmented melakartas.

Carnatic music revolves around religious pieces called kirtana and kriti and the soloist is known for how they improvise from the basic melodic themes of these songs and it was the vocal work that was the basis for traditional Carnatic music.  This was highlighted in the previous posting on this blog of a great album by Ramnad Krishnan.

For many western listeners, these lengthy pieces can be a challenge, but this listener has found, in twenty-five years of enjoying Indian classical music, that having the drone almost as a meditative "bottom" and then treating the soloist as someone developing the western classical notion of "variations on a theme" while waiting eagerly for those virtuosic displays of rapid runs and technical gymnastics is a good way to approach the music.

Ultimately, there is something very meditative in listening to Indian classical music, whether from the Hindustani or Carnatic traditions--that approaching it as a continuous experience that is less dependent on time as it is on development of the melodic themes by improvisational variation makes the music more emjoyable.  Dr. L. Subramanian is a masterful performer and this recording is another excellent recording from Nimbus, which has a large catalog of Indian classical music.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Durutti Column: LC

This second album from Vini Reilly's The Durutti Column takes its name from Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle), a far right-wing organization in late 1960s Italy and which is a sort of analog to the band name, which is a misspelling of an anarchist group from 1930s Spain.

Recorded on four-track tape at Reilly's home, the album is a stellar one, featuring Reilly's superb guitar and piano, the first appearance of long-time drummer and manager Bruce Reilly, and a slew of great songs.

These start with the relatively up-tempo "Sketch for Dawn (I)," which has a driving drum beat from Mitchell and rhythm guitar from Reilly to anchor this excellent song.  There are many who don't like Reilly's monotonal vocalizations, but this listener finds it better to have the creator sing his own songs, even if his abilities are, technically speaking, lacking.

"Portrait for Frazer" highlights Reilly's uncanny way with achingly beautiful melodies and atmospheric playing, while Mitchell, who is a master at this, plays with great sensitivity and understatement.

"Jacqueline" has one of Reilly's most memorable melodic lines and is another fine example of his playing exactly what needs to be played without overdoing it or relying on flashy solos to show that his gift for simple, spare, but compelling composition is balanced by his talent with the guitar.  Again, Mitchell provides the right time of percussive accompaniment.

"Messidor" has a more aggressive percussive element and Reilly multi-tracks guitars to great effect, with another one of his recognizable melodies.  While it has a stronger rhythmic element and a faster tempo, it contains a contemplative feeling that is typical of so much of what makes The Durutti Column's music compelling.

"Sketch for Dawn (II)" is a darker and more somber affair.  Part of this is Reilly's vocal, but there is a rare bass line, played by him, and a particular percussive feel that contribute to the feeling.  Reilly's piano sounds like it is played on an old, beat-up upright, but it may be the 4-track recording process that is much of the reason why.

"Never Known" uses drum machine percussion, a ghostly atmospheric electronic effect, and one of Reilly's most heart-breaking melodies to create another downcast, but achingly beautiful pieces.  That peculiar flat vocal, which sounds like he recorded it in an echo chamber, again seems perfectly suited to the emotional content of the piece.  That melodic line on the guitar is something else.

"The Act Committed" is brighter and more upbeat, backed by Mitchell's low-key drumming and by a drum machine, with Reilly's bass and more fine multi-tracked guitar, with another excellent set of melodic shapes generated.

"Detail for Paul" has more multi-tracked guitar that utilizes echoed effects and a rising main guitar line almost like a continuous solo, backed by drum programming, that is another absorbing tune, though it ends rather abruptly.

The original album ends with what is undoubtedly Reilly's masterpiece.  The astounding "The Missing Boy" has another excellent melodic guitar line, with accompaniment utilizing Reilly's bass and piano, as well as Mitchell's exemplay drumming and propulsive guitar and piano rhythmic accenting.  The lyric is said to be about the recent death of Ian Curtis, the troubled and tormented singer from Joy Division, the great band that was, like The Durutti Column, one of the early groups to record for Factory Records.  Again, that odd flat, nasally vocal recorded low in the mix seems perfectly suited for the song, which closes out a remarkable record.

Under the Factory Once imprint of remixed and expanded releases from the catalog, the 1996 reissue has several bonus tracks, including the brooding piano piece, "The Sweet Cheat Gone"; the whimsical and strangely affecting "For Mimi" with an angular guitar and Mitchell's simple drumming used to fine effect; "Belgian Friends" which has another strong melody on guitar and piano in a very lo-fi setting, which is only amplified by Mitchell's basic, but perfect, drumming and Reilly's bass, but which makes for a great song; and "Danny," which has another of those great guitar melodic lines that seemed endless in Reilly's long catalog of recordings--this being another exceptional piece.

Rather than throw-aways, the eight additional pieces seem truly more like the "Related Works" that they are described as in the liner notes, with all but one being from the period (1980-81)--the other is "One Christmas for Your Thoughts" from 1988, which is more of the era of The Guitar and Other Machines, which was highlighted here before.

Vini Reilly is truly a remarkable talent and one who doesn't fit the "alternative" "post-punk" environment that surrounded the other groups signed to Factory in 1978.  Label owner Anthony Wilson was a devoted champion of Reilly's music, even as he worked in obscurity for so many years, and remained so even when Factory and its successor labels shut down.

For this blogger, discovering The Durutti Column in 1986, wanting to know who one of New Order's opening acts was, remains one of the most memorable discoveries of an unsung musician of them all.  Reilly, who was always of delicate health, has been inactive in recent years, but his music over thirty-five years remains inspiring and affecting.