Monday, January 16, 2017

Max Roach: We Insist! Freedom Now Suite

Nat Hentoff, who died on 7 January at age 91, was many things in his long career as a writer and journalist, though he is known best for his work as a jazz critic for The Village Voice for a half-century as well as for the many liner notes he wrote for jazz albums.

He was also the Artists and Repertoire (A&R) director for the Candid label when it was founded in 1960 and signed such creative forces as Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Steve Lacy and others.

Perhaps the most controversial and compelling of the Candid catalogue issues, however, was Max Roach's We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, which assgined co-compositional credit to Oscar Brown, Jr.  Recorded at Nola Penthouse Sound Studio in New York  on 31 August and 6 September 1960 and released that December, it is said that Hentoff was warned not to release the recording as it would stir up racial emotions that would be destructive to him, the label and to Roach.

It's a fortunate situation that Hentoff persevered.  It's even more fortunate that Roach had the foresight, creativity and drive to get this album made and that he assembled a stellar roster of musicians to carry out the vision he developed with Brown.

Roach and Brown were specifically motivated by the sit-ins by black students earlier in 1960--an iconic photo of one of these is conspicuously used as the front cover for the album.  Hentoff wrote in his notes, "jazz musicians, normally apolitical and relatively unmindful of specific of social movements, were also unprecedentedly stimulated" by the events of the year.

Whether his assertions about the lack of political and social awareness among jazz musicians is reasonable, Hentoff went on to say that "one of the jazzmen who had long been strongly involved emotionally in the movements for integration in America and national autonomy in Agrica was Max Roach."

Roach and Brown were already collaborating on a work designed for presentation at the 1963 centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation when Roach took the project in a different direction, apparently without Brown being notified.

What resulted was a carefully crafted set of pieces detailing the black experience in Africa and America.  Side A that reflected the situation of black people in bondage and oppression, through the tune "Driva' Man" with a notable Brown lyric about slave drivers and "Freedom Day", which reflects the sentiments felt by blacks after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Side B reflected contemporary concerns with "All Africa" and the independence movements sweeping the continent at that time, reflected viscerally with Nigerian percussionist Michael Olatunji's masterful work and vocalist Abbey Lincoln's recitation of African tribal names while Olatunji responds in Yoruba, and "Tears for Johannesburg," referring specifically to the horrors of apartheid in South Africa.

Not only did Roach put together an outstanding program of musical works to make his musical statement ring strong and true, but he brought together some amazing musicians.  Lincoln, who soon became his wife, turns in a series of astonishing vocal performances, bringing strength, dignity and, importantly, a woman's prominent role to the proceedings.  Much was said about her anguished and powerfully emotive screams, cries and moans during the middle section of the staggering "Triptych" as Roach masterfully used the drum kit as an analog to her vocalizations.  But, it sounds totally natural and right in the context.

Roach, who could easily have relied on his own profound skills as a drummer to propel the work, wisely brought in Olatunji to give a different percussive perspective and a directly African one to make this work stronger.  Raymond Mantillo and Tomas du Vall also provide percussive color.

The horns include a trio of masters, including the underappreciated Julian Priester on trombone--his work alone on "Freedom Day" is a revelation.  Booker Little died in 1961 at only 23 of uremia, but he was already a stunning trumpeter and an associate of Roach and Eric Dolphy (the live recordings Dolphy and Little recorded at the Five Spot in July 1961, just a few months before Little's death are classics).  His work is uniformly excellent here.

Then there was the wild card--Coleman Hawkins, who rose to fame in the 1920s and whose recording of "Body and Soul" in 1939 is a landmark of tenor playing, brings his brilliance to full power on "Driva' Man".  Credit should also be given to the relatively unknown Walter Benton and his excellent tenor work on "Freedom Day" and bassist James Schenck, of whom there is almost nothing known, but whose playing with Roach is excellent.

This listener happens to be reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom and today is, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so the timing of highlighting this remarkable recording seems more than appropriate.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 3

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was a rare combination of renowned pianist, conductor and  composer who may have been the last of the major "romantics" in Russia before he fled his homeland after the fall of the czarist regime and the onset of the Soviet Union.

This release by China's Yedang Entertainment Company pairs the amazing second and third piano concertos of Rachmaninov and from recordings decades apart.  The concertos are landmarks in the form that amaze and awe with their impeccable melodies and remarkable harmonic structures.  These performances, at least to this amateur's ear, are excellent and display great sensitivity to the material.

The second concerto came after the young Rachmaninov suffered a terrible psychological trauma when his first sympony, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1897 was a chaotic failure.  Seeking treatment from a neurologist, who used autosuggestion to get the composer to approach his next project with more confidence.  The result was the second piano concerto, which the liner notes, suggest "isa fully integrated work that reveals the composer's authentic idiom."  The dedication to Dr. Nikolai Dahl, the piece, the author of the notes, "was ever so richly merited."

The piece is full of soaring, majestic and stately melodies that are achingly beautiful and affirming, redolent of the composer's hero, Tchaikovsky, especially in the first two movements, while the final movement brings in some powerful and intense dymanics with the orchestra amidst moments of introspection.  Recorded in earely 1959 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Kurt Sanderline, and featuring the amazing playing of soloist Sviatoslav Richter, the performance is spellbinding.

The third concerto appeared in late 1909 with the pianist debuting the work in New York with a repeat performance a couple months later at Carnegie Hall under the direction of the great Gustav Mahler, whose rigorous rehearsing and attention to detail highly impressed Rachmaninov.  The composer worked frantically to prepare the work before his American concert tour and it was said that, after the ink dried and he heade by boat for New York, he was "practicing the solo part during the sea voyage on a silent keyboard for fear of disturbing his fellow passengers."

There were some issues, however.  As scored, the piece was long for the form (even though conductor Mahler was known for massive, impossibly long symphonies at the time) and Rachmaninov shaved off some ten minutes, or about a quarter of the work, to fit the programming mandates of the era.  Critics were also put off by the complexity of the piece, which quickly became known as a technically daunting work for pianists to take on.

In the February 1991 performance, on the heels of perestroika and glasnost and as the USSR neared collapse,Viktoria Postnikova plays with great sensitivity, handling the work with great power and aplomb, and the support of the doncuting of the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra by her husband Gennady Rozhdestvensky, is also stunning.

Even the untrained can hear how demanding playing the piano parts must have been, but it is also the orchestration that can be very challenging with shifting rhythms and remarkable uses of counterpoint.  There is, too, a stunning balance between softer, quieter passages and the more volatile and emotive elements that make this work stand out.  Restored to its full length, it is a powerful, rich and uplifting experience that shows Rachmaninov at his full power as a composer.

Would this have been possible without the turmoil of the first symphony and the valuable work done by Dr. Dahl?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Korea: The Folkloric Instrumental Traditions II

Given the many issues that continue to define the tense relationships between Japan, a colonizer which used incredibly repressive and brutal measures, and South Korea, the colony that is now one of the world's economic powers,  it is remarkable to note the power of music to bridge some of the political, social and economic gaps that exist.

Japan Victor Corporation (JVC) has released its World Soubds catalog, which it defines as "featuring the traditional music unique to many countries, music which people all over the world enjoy listening to and performing" and then states "this collection featuring musical voices from every corner of the globe is now being offered by Japan to the world."

Whether this is an intent to bring people from different societies and countries together is not explicitly stated but the general offer at the end of the last phrase could be interpreted as that.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the first such trip by a Japanese head of state, might be thought of as a goodwill gesture in the political arena.

But, a recent unveiling of a statue in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea, commemorating the plight of the "comfort woman," Korean women used as sex slaves, led Japan to pull out of upcoming economic talks with Korea and to threaten to not only remove its consul in Busan, but its ambassador from Seoul, as well.  This comes after a 2015 arrangement between the two countries included a Japanese apology for the treatment of comfort women and a fund to support about four dozen survivors.  Where this latest problem goes remains to be seen.

As to the music on this remarkable disc, recorded in late June 1988 in Tokyo, it emphasizes the sounds of high-pitched reed wind instruments with percussion accompaniment in three long performances.

"Sinawi for Samul and Hojok" includes the powerful and orchestral sounds of the samul, an ensemble of gongs and double-headed drums, that have been the focus of an entry on this blog in the past, with the hojok, a conically shaped reed instrument that is played in a very stately and emotive manner by Park Jong Sun.  To this listener, this piece is the most intriguing, primarily because of the impressiveness of the percussion.

"Piri Sanjo" refers to a four-movement suite in the sanjo form, in which the piri wind instrument is backed by light percussion and the track gives full expression to the virtuosity of the soloist, Han Se Hyon.

The performance of "Taepungnyu" is also exceptional, with the changgo (the two-headed drum) played very sparsely to support the ensemble of wind instruments, including two piri, a haegum (or a fiddle-like piece), and the taegum (flute).  To this listener, having the flute provides a variety and a contrast in tone and register that makes the piece, performed in the same stately tempo as the others, highly distinctive.

This is a very impressive recording of traditional Korean music, obviously issued by a Japanese record label in the hope of showing Japan's desire for bringing people together in at least a general way.  Given continuing problems in the diplomatic relations between the two nations, it seems particularly relevant.