Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Flute Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Sometimes it's the lesser-known pieces in a master composer's catalog of works that are the most interesting.  This is certainly the case with these little gems, comprising the two concertos for flute and a short andante in C major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart released by the excellent Naxos label in the late 1980s.

The Capella Istropolitana, a chamber orchestra in Bratislava, Slovakia, conducted by Austrian Martin Sieghart, provides a fine accompaniment to flautist Herbert Weissberg, a native of Vienna, who remained in his music-rich hometown to study at the city's music academy and university and then became principal flautist for the symphony orchestra there.

The helpful liner notes state that Mozart wrote these pieces as part of a concerted (ha!) effort to break free of the limitations imposed upon him by his years under the patronage of the Archbishop in his native Salzburg.

In his very early 20s, about 1777, Mozart composed these concertos for a Dutchman named "De Jean," who was an amateur flautist and someone who had the kind of money Mozart craved, being perpetually in financial distress.

Evidently Mozart did not think highly of the flute and may not have put in the kind of passionate intensity in composition that he did many of his other works.  Still, these pieces are melodically solid and harmonically interesting, even if they don't rank among his greatest pieces.  The light, fragile sound of the flute dancing above the excellent orchestral background is pleasant and maintains interest.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Praxis: Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis)

A week ago, while driving through the parched landscape of the high desert from Bishop to San Bernardino, the two-disc Axiom Funk compilation, Funkcronomicon, provided an unusual soundtrack to the bare hills, Joshua Trees, and the endless ribbon of asphalt that rolled on through the hours.

The great keyboardist Bernie Worrell, the "Wizard of Woo," died today at age 72 from lung cancer.  A classical piano prodigy who studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, Worrell was propelled to fame with this central role in funkmeister George Clinton's masterful ensemble, Parliament/Funkadelic, for many years.

In the early 1990s, Worrell joined forces with fellow P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins; D.J. Af Next Man Flip, formerly Afrika Baby Bam of the great hip-hop group Jungle Brothers; drummer Brain (Bryan Mantia, later with Primus, Guns 'N Roses and others) and the phenomenal guitarist Buckethead in the Bill-Laswell produced collective, Praxis.

1992's debut record by the group, Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis), was mind-blowing and innovative a quarter century ago and is still striking today.  The recording is full of interesting and strangely complementary mixes of metal, hip-hop, funk, electronics and other elements and takes great advantage of the talents of its five disparate, but well-synchronized members.

Worrell's organ, clavinet and synthesizer works particularly well as a foil for Buckethead's amazing pyrotechnics and the steady backing of Collins and Brain.  Laswell's production work is excellent, providing the right level of mixing for each performer and leaving space in the final product to hear the ensemble in all of its remarkable glory.

"Animal Behavior", with Collins' typically humorous vocal, is the closest thing to a standard tune on the album and its relaxed funk groove included some tasty Worrell organ playing.  The end of the tune features some beautiful melodic guitar work from Buckethead.  "Crash Victim/Black Science Navigator" is a crazed conglomeration of shredding guitar, sharp organ, and a strong, steady beat from the rhythm section, before Af Next Man Flip does his thing on the second half.

Worrell gets the spotlight in "Seven Laws of Woo," a play on his nickname, and the tune then heads into a metal-inflected jam that rocks hard and has another great Buckethead solo.  "Dead Man Walking" highlights Buckethead's astounding guitar abilities before the tune hits a solid funk groove punctuated by all kinds of electronic sounds and turntable work.  The "Interworld and the New Innocence" features some more delicate and memorable playing by Buckethead before the band breaks out into a harder-rocking section, where Worrell gets a clavinet workout with his organ accompaniment.  The record's 16-minute epic, "After Shock (Chaos Never Died)" includes some more fine Worrell workouts, including some haunting organ playing.

The whole album is fantastic, showcasing the strengths of the quintet with Laswell's crystalline production serving the proceedings very well.  This is one of many apt testimonials to the amazing talent of Bernie Worrell.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares

When this blogger started listening to "world music" in 1990, this was one of the first recordings that was purchased, mainly because the 1986-87 (first on the British label 4AD and then on the American Nonesuch Explorer label) re-release of the 1975 Disques Cellier release by Marcel Cellier became something of a surprise world-wide phenomenon.

Obviously, the quality of an experience can't be repeated and, the more distant in time, the less can be recalled.  But, listening to the opening polyphonic harmonic vocal gymnastics employed by the two dozen singers of the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir, still provokes something of that spine-tingling feeling of just over a quarter century ago.

These are traditional folk songs, from weddings, harvests, dancing, and work, as well as from legend and myth in a part of the world little known to most of us in America, but which has ancient roots and connectivity between east and west that clearly have formed the unique qualities of this remarkable vocal music.

But, there is a distinctively modern "artistic" sheen put on the old folk origins, both in arrangment by Phillip Koutev and Krasimir Kyurkchiyski, and on the recording quality.  Purity is often a word used to describe this work and it is true from multiple standpoints:  the quality of each singer's voice, in the roots of the material, and in the fine sound recording quality.

To this listener, everything about this album is fantastic and it seems almost unfair to pick out highlights.  There are the ensemble passages, solos, and small group harmonizing--all of which have their particular aspects to recommend them.  One of the more notable elements, though, is the use of dissonant harmonies in diaphonic singing, described in the notes as "two voices (solo or choral) [which] track each other in parallel intervals.

Koutev and Kuykchiyski took the traditional pieces and reworked them in a modern way utilizing changes in mode and harmonic intervals, but always with an eye to preservation of the magic and power of the source materials, while recalibrating the works for modern presentation.

There are also occasional uses of instruments, such as the gayda, similar to a bagpipe, the kaval, a flute, and the gadulka, or violin, as well as some percussion.  These are often introduced as breaks in the vocal pieces or as stand-alones, in addition to accompaniment to the choir.

The writer of the liners, composer Ingram Marshall, points out that the use of a-harmonic materials by Eastern European classical composers like Bartók, Ligeti, Stravinsky, and Penderecki is often derived by folk music found in their native countries, like Hungary or Poland.  Marshall concluded his essay by asking "why more Western composers do not work with indigenous singers and instrumentalists as a springboard to creativity."  Of course, there are some who have used Eastern music for this purpose, including Lou Harrison and the inspiration he took from Balinese gamelan music.

In any case, Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares is still a stunning listening experience and there are several follow-ups from the ensemble, renamed after the fall of Communism, a few of which will be highlighted here in the future.  Finally, one of the most memorable concert-going experiences for this listener was seeing the ensemble perform at UCLA's Royce Hall sometime in the early to mid Nineties--where the recordings could only hint at the power and expressiveness to be found in a high-quality concert hall.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson's voice is something else--a "false bass" growl that bursts forth from his tenor range and pulls the listener in with powerful lyrics generally of a strong religious nature and makes for an unusual deep dark blues and gospel stew.  On top of this, the remarkable slide and straight picking acoustic guitar playing might get short shrift with all the attention to Johnson's voice, but it is uniformly excellent playing.

With digital remastering, these 1920s recordings sound more immediate and, perhaps to some more listeners, more claustrophobic, but it is also true that just having the man's voice and guitar is all that is needed for a spectacular performance.

There are some tracks here that are well-known to even casual blues listeners (this blogger doesn't pretend to be a connoisseur), such as "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground"; "It's Nobody's Fault But Mine"; "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time"; "Let Your Light Shine on Me," which partly dispenses with that guttural growl; "John the Revelator," which has a female backing vocal from Willie B. Harris present on other tracks, as well, and others.  The first-named piece is a revelation, with the wordless emotional singing and beautiful guitar playing tingling the spine in ways that few others have.

But, there are many pieces, less familiar to amateurs like this blogger, that amply show the immense talent of a man who never received his due.  One standout is "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down," which has a great rhythmic sense to drive the piece vocally and instrumentally.  Another is "I'm Gonna Run to the City of Refuge," another vocal jewel with the female backing vocal on the chorus.  "God Won't Never Change" is sung completely in Johnson's straightforward tenor and is a gem.  "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond" is another example of stellar slide guitar and Johnson's "false bass" vocals harmonize nicely (this isn't always true, however--as on "Praise God I'm Satisfied"and others) with his female counterpart.  "God Moves on the Water" has some very tasty slide work and a nice, growl-less vocal.

This is a collection of consistently rewarding early recorded blues and gospel from a master of acoustic guitar and deeply personal and stylized vocalizing.  Kudos also go to Samuel Charters for his detailed essay on Johnson and his music.

Particularly affecting is the fact that, as Charters tells so well, Johnson was a preacher in Beaumont, Texas, when, in 1945, his house burned down and he was left to live among the charred ruins, catching a fever that developed into pneumonia.  According to the woman who was married to him, a hospital refused to treat him because he was blind and Johnson died needlessly at 48.  Too many great black musicians of all genres died too young and in shocking circumstances at a time when they were creating some of America's greatest music and not given their due.  The story of Blind Willie Johnson may be one of the most heartbreaking of all.