Tilbury plays Cage (CD Review)

John Cage

Sonatas and Interludes

John Tilbury, piano

Decca CD

Part of a reissue program by Decca and DG, which will feature 50 recordings by 50 different artists of important works from the 20th century, this new edition of John Tilbury’s excellent 1975 recording of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes is also a welcome addition to the spate of Cage centenary releases. Known for his performances of New York School composers, Cardew, and his work as an improvisor, Tilbury is an ideal interpreter of this piece. His performance is an incisive one, embracing both gamelan-like percussive elements imbued by the preparations as well as the classically proportioned organization of the works’s proto-sonata structure (when composing the piece, Cage was thinking of Scarlatti’s sonatas rather than Beethoven’s).

The sound has held up well, imparting a warm LP era vibe without lacking in detail. The close-miked quality of the recording makes some of the effects created by Cage’s preparations all the more apparent. It’s like sitting next to Tilbury while he plays, rather than hearing a more muted effect further out in the hall.

If all of the reissues in this series return to us elusive treasures such as this recording, we are in for a trove indeed.

Hilliard Ensemble Sings Gesualdo (CD Review)

Carlo Gesualdo

Quinto Libro di Madrigali

Hilliard Ensemble

ECM New Series CD

It’s tempting, yet often misleading, to create direct parallels between life and art. The music of Carlo Gesualdo (1561-1613), effusively expressive and, at times, wildly chromatic to many 21st century listeners, has likely become inextricably linked to the scandalous facets of his biography. But the musical traits which made Gesualdo’s madrigals so memorable needn’t be treated as isolated phenomena perpetrated by an unbalanced individual. Gesualdo was not the only composer in his circle who experimented with what are now considered unusual musical practices: unprepared modulations, colorfully chromatic melodic embellishments, and audacious text-painting devices. He’s just the Neopolitan madrigalist who did so most memorably.

For this ECM recording of Gesualdo’s fifth book of madrigals, Hilliard Ensemble members countertenor David James, tenor Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor Steven Harrold, and bass Gordon Jones join forces with guest artists soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David Gould: both singers who have appeared with the ensemble, in concert and on record, in the past. Their intonation, throughout the wending and widely diverging chromatic pathways found in these pieces, is flawless. In addition, one senses a forward momentum and particularization of articulation that impels us to savor as well the considerably intricate rhythmic dimensions of this music.

Another joy in hearing this recording is noting that, despite attention to these various details, the Hilliard Ensemble never exaggerates them. With such rich and evocative repertoire at their disposal, all too frequently, one hears vocal groups overplay their hand. Balancing passion with restraint is too rarely found in Gesualdo recordings; negotiating the correct calculus for this makes the Hilliard Ensemble’s rendition a benchmark one. Recommended.

Pecou’s Tremendum

Pecou tremendum

Thierry Pécou: Tremendum

Ensemble Variances and Percussions Claviers de Lyon

Harmonia Mundi

Harmonia Mundi’s third release of music by French composer Thierry Pécou (b. 1965) features the “carnival concerto” Tremendum (2005-’10) as its centerpiece. The version presented on this recording was revised to highlight the considerable talents of its interpreters: Percussions Claviers de Lyon. The influence of Brazilian carnival is overt, with boisterous syncopated rhythms clamoring for attention amid whistles and mallet percussion in a jubilant, dancing celebration. Cast in two movements Arbre des Fleurs (2010) for percussion quintet retains the carnivals sense of relentless energy and occasional whimsy,  but the dissonance quotient is upped to create a spicier harmonic palette. More angst-filled too, and effectively so, is Soleil-Tigre (2009) for cello and piano, a piece that contains the ostinati which are Pécou’s signature; but these contend with the cello line’s throbbing, angular melodic gestures.

Paseo de la Reforma (1995-2011, perhaps the latter date implies a revision of an earlier piece?) is relentless in its reiteration of jazzy riffs. There is elegance in the instrumentation of the work, but the repetitions don’t transform as interestingly as the material tends to do in his more recent works. Another earlier piece, Danzón for solo flute, incorporates microtones, key clicks, harmonics, and multiphonics seamlessly in a pliant dance with considerable charm. Manoa (2005) features bass flute, employing a considerable array of technical extensions, in another composition that brings together traditional dance rhythms with gestures of the avant-garde: a microcosm of Pécou’s considerably wide ranging domain.

Golden Tree on Important Records (Review)

Kawabata Makoto & à qui avec Gabriel

Golden Tree

Important Records

Kawabata Makoto is best known for his work with the group Acid Mothers Temple, a post-psych noise rock collective that can melt paint off of walls with the amplitude of their recordings. When the guitarist joins forces with accordionist and vocalist à qui avec Gabriel for the album Golden Tree (Important Records), he creates an entirely different sound world.

The album consists of three extended duets; one, “Solid Torus,” lasting in excess of half an hour. Balancing with long held tones on the accordion, the guitar lines provide an uneasy counterpoint that, while less subdued than the torrents of fuzzed soloing one hears on AMT releases, is no less focused. Indeed, there is a sense that the energy Makoto is keeping in reserve could at any moment be unleashed; released like a tightly coiled spring. Instead, most often balance is sought by both parties, with guitar harmonics and the occasional feedback flirtation blending with the accordion’s treble register drones and ephemeral clusters. à qui avec Gabriel also has a beautiful soprano singing voice, which she sometimes lends to the proceedings in sustained lines and repeated tones. Golden Tree is at its most beguiling when vocalized tones, sustained guitar lines, and accordion drones dovetail together in an intense dovetailing of dolphin-like song.

Björk: Biophilia Remixes by Current Value


Björk
Biophilia Remixes
Part I: “Crystalline” and “Solstice,” remixed by Current Value
One Little Indian

Björk’s 2011 recording, Biophilia, has, from its conception and release, been more than just another full length CD. The songwriter commissioned an app suite that allowed listeners to interact with the musical materials on the album and learn more about the scientific and ecological inspiration for much of the content of the lyrics. This has been followed by several educational initiatives in which Björk has been involved as a teacher and curator. Thus, the Biophilia project’s organic growth can be seen to extend alongside its creator’s omnivorous interests; and to reach far beyond the usual quarters of the record industry.


On the musical front, Björk has invited several prominent electronica artists to remix songs from Biophilia. The projected eight part series of remixes affords another layer of collaboration and interaction with this rich source material. The first part features Berlin-based artist Tim Eliot, who records under the moniker Current Value. He refashions two songs. The first, “Crystalline,” has one of the coolest and most readily apprehended apps in the series.


Crystalline App Tutorial on YouTube


Current Value has been a purveyor of techstep and the more dissonant wing of drum and bass for two decades. On “Crystalline,” his preferred techniques are deployed at full strength. After a delicate and ethereal beginning, he lays the hammer down, distressing the song’s textures and providing its center with a “voltage” and glitch tinged foreground and thrumming sepulchral bass tones. CV allows for this wall of song to prevail for much of the remix, making it eminently dance floor ready. We are allowed a brief respite again near the song’s conclusion; ambient synths blanket Björk’s voice before it is once again thrust into the propulsive maelstrom of the mix.


“Solstice” is a far more delicate source track. The Current Value remix processes the vocals, providing a sense of distance that accentuates the original’s delicacy. Beats skitter and, once again, “voltage” punctuation coruscates the proceedings until, at last, the boom is once again lowered: a mid tempo groove is established that is underpinned with multiple bass register lines in counterpoint. Perfect for a down tempo or lounge setting but still rife with syncopation, the “Solstice” rendition lives up to its remixer’s reputation for challenging dance hall aesthetics with dissonant and complex rhythms. Correspondingly, its adventurous spirit transforms the source material in fascinating ways.




Theo Bleckmann Performs Kate Bush (CD Review)

Theo Bleckmann

Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush

Winter & Winter CD

Often, we discuss covers – artists interpreting songs written by others – in relation to their original renditions. Hello Earth!, a quintet outing by vocalist Theo Bleckmann and a quartet of musicians with jazz and contemporary classical backgrounds, is devoted to the music of prog pop songwriter Kate Bush. It is a loving homage to Bush’s textured arrangements, and thoughtful, atmospheric, and, at times quirky, catalogue. However, to frame Bleckmann’s recasting of this music as a set of covers is to undervalue the considerable transformation these songs undergo here.

This doesn’t mean wholesale deconstruction. Although it starts out tempo rubato, one’s pulse will still surge by the second verse of Bleckmann’s rendition of “Running Up That Hill.” Both it and the title track inhabit a world of morphing, flexible, and swinging rhythms that are the stuff of modern jazz. But Bleckmann and drummer John Hollenbeck are well aware that, in order for the pop propensities of Bush’s songs to also be respected, this pliability of tempo must be met with corresponding forward momentum. Add to this the experimental touches that appear on the CD, such as prepared harpsichord, toy instruments, and other atmospherics, and the balance that is achieved would be the envy of many tight rope acts.

What the artists avoid doing, and perhaps this is a secret to some of the record’s charm, is seeking to recreate Bush’s well nigh inimitable and often theatrical performance persona. Bleckmann is a singer with a powerful and singular sounding instrument and formidable stage presence of his own; he wisely avoids any whiff of caricature. While the aforementioned affection and awareness for the originals is evident, there is no by the numbers recreation attempted on the instrumental musical front either. Instead, Bleckmann and his estimable cohorts pleasingly avoid literal mindedness when crafting their arrangements. The clearest demonstration of this: in “Saxophone Song” Caleb Burhans’ violin replaces the saxophone solo of the original. On “Violin,” the band moves from the more acoustic-based sound world that prevails on the album to a more rollicking and plugged in aesthetic. Burhans shreds on guitar in tandem with thrumming bass licks from Skúli Sverrisson, Hollenbeck unleashing an uncharacteristically aggressive barrage, and pianist Henry Hey’s Leslie-saturated rock organ work.

Bleckmann also refuses campy choices. “This Woman’s Work” could certainly have been accommodated at pitch in the singer’s attractive falsetto; As Ann Powers pointed out on NPR, this approach once helped to supply a big hit to Maxwell. Instead, Bleckmann allows the lead vocals, and backing vocals overdubs, to span his range from low to high; inhabiting the song’s emotive content rather than consigning it to a gender stereotype. It’s a masterful, and affecting, album closer.

Alexander Tucker: Third Mouth (CD Review)

Alexander Tucker

Third Mouth

Thrill Jockey

Alexander Tucker’s career began rustically and experimentally, with reference points ranging everywhere from folk inspired alternate tunings for acoustic guitar to doom metal drones. For a while during the aughts, it seemed as if his output was inexorably drifting further and further away from the immediacy of conventional song format in favor of more extended and out there meditations. Over the past couple years, as evidenced in his 2011 release Dorwytch (Thrill Jockey), Tucker has been seeking a rapprochement between aspects of popular song and the psych-drone cum prog-folk aesthetic he’s cultivated.  He takes this approach on Third Mouth, his latest recording for Thrill Jockey, as well.

A particular way in has been an expansion of his use of vocal harmonies, including overdubbed vocals and the participation of vocalists Frances Morgan and Daniel O’Sullivan (the latter also plays a variety of instruments on the recording). And there are even two cuts that clock in at three minutes with memorable choruses. No one will mistake them for straightforward pop; the layered arrangements still hold true to Tucker’s penchant for sumptuous timbral complications. That said, there’s a beauty in the simplicity of their melodic construction, which proves to be a unifying thread and straightforward thrust in the midst of various textural peregrinations, however lovely sounding these may be.

Those devotees of Tucker’s earlier work who may be fearful that this modification of his approach inherently means an adieu to freeform experimentation needn’t worry. Third Mouth also contains several longish compositions, and “Amon Hen,” an aphoristic piece of Waits/Partch inspired experimentation, too. “Glass Axe” has a pastoral cast while “Rh” indulges a more psych-drone ambience. And while both of these can also be said to be led by the vocals, in the former taking on the presence of a bona fide hook while in the latter being framed as an almost chant like refrain, the instrumental touches – glorious chords in alternate tunings, spacey reverberation, long held drones, and flashes of dissonance nicking each piece with slight distressing around the edges – remind one of the totality of Tucker’s sonic journey.

Marco von Orelli 6 (CD Review)

Marco Von Orelli
Close Ties on Hidden Lanes
Hat Hut CD hatOLOGY 709

Swiss trumpeter and composer Marco von Orelli is equally at home in both traditional and “out” settings. Close Ties on Hidden Lanes, a recording of his sextet for Hat Hut, is a snapshot of a band versatile enough to encompass both ends of the jazz spectrum – as well as a healthy dose of contemporary classical reference points – Messiaen, Ives, Scelsi, etc. – to boot. The recording consists of eight originals by von Orelli , which are fleshed out with arranging help from band member and pianist/synth player Michel Wintsch, a performer who isn’t averse to adding electronic rocket fire periodically to the proceedings (listen to the varied and extended cut “Marsala’s Strandgut” for examples). These two are joined by trombonist Lukas Briggen, bass clarinetist Lukas Roos, bassist Kaspar von Grünigen, and drummer Samuel Dühsler.

Make no mistake however, even when the group is moving towards post-tonal terrain, they seldom lose track of strong sense of pulsation. On “Urban Ways,” wah-wah trumpets and long drawn out pitch bends are undergirded by a post-bop groove. The rhythm section eventually coalesces in a series of pounding repeated dissonant verticals that recall Stravinsky doing the “Rite thing.” Even in the more free play environment of “Poetry,” in which talking muted brass overtake the rhythm section for an extended period, there is still a sense of urgency and forward drive in the solos. When drums, bass, and keys forcefully reenter, one doesn’t feel as if gears shift, but that the underlying groove has been maintained during their relative absence.

A particularly fetching tune which shows off all of the players, as well as von Orelli’s composing chops and imaginative sense of form, is “Narragonia,” a fifteen minute long opus that forms the album’s centerpiece. It embraces long lyrical neo noir  solo trumpet and trombone duets, chorale-like tutti passages, and impressively well controlled upper register interjections from Roos. A bracing middle section filled with chromatic coruscation from the piano and terse angular blatting responses from the winds gives way to some avant mayhem from Roos in an extended howling cadenza. Wintsch, von Orelli, and Briggen follow suit, each soloing in equally questing fashion.

After the inevitable explosive tutti, we are shifted into a more mysterious soundscape, filled with repeated note filigrees, whole tone piano riffs, and low register glissandi. Another cadenza, this time from trombone, is accompanied by synth, a  bit of prepared piano, and alternately shimmering and terse percussion textures. Gradually, von Orelli and Roos reassert themselves, and the opening chorale, deconstructed, lined out, and elaborately ornamented, brings us full circle. The interwoven chromatic lines from the piano and brass interjections reintroduce an even more ecstatic version of the opening chorale, which brings the composition to a tense and dissonant conclusion. Close Ties on Hidden Lanes brings together notation and improvisation, freedom and structure, chamber music and jazz in an amalgamation that suggests vibrant ways forward on each of these musical thoroughfares.

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Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up (CD Review)

Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up
The Air is Different
482 Music CD 482-10719

Pictures of Tomas Fujiwara’s grandparents, dressed elegantly and exuding warm yet somewhat reserved countenances, grace the cover and sleeve of his latest CD: The Air is Different. The jazz drummer and composer helms this, the second recording of his “Hook Up” group, which includes guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Trevor Dunn, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. The Air is Different is in an outing that blends contemporary chamber jazz with fleeting references to trad jazz and Twentieth century neoclassicism. Thus, it embodies both reflection on the traditions of one’s elders and the resolve and courage that their example gives to descendents to forge their own pathways; Fujiwara’s inclusion of family photos is no mere dedicatory happenstance.

Compositions like “Lineage” and “For Ours” present tight structures and duetted thematic melodies that often reference their progenitors; in homage, not parody. Plummy tone from Finlayson and supple, dynamically nuanced drumming from Fujiwara prove particularly distinctive in these pieces. Meanwhile, listeners are treated to a strong and urgent polymetric groove (and shredding solos from Halvorson and Settles) on “Double Lake, Defined,” and free play with a raucous rhythmic underpinning and bracing dissonance on “Cosmopolitan, Rediscovery.”

The CD’s final two selections — “Smoke-Breathing Lights” and “Postcards” — are a bit more extended; allowing the quintet to change demeanors, soloing roles, and accompanying textures a number of times. It’s in these variegated landscapes that Fujiwara and the Hookup shine most brightly, sensing the shifts in one another’s playing with the  near-prescient perception. This is no ESP; it is hard won acquaintance that comes from the chameleon like exchange of roles occurring nearly nightly on a variety of Brooklyn bandstands among these, and many other, frequent collaborators in the ecstatic jazz tradition.

Standing on the shoulders of avant jazz giants, and not afraid to occasionally look over their own for inspiration, Fujiwara and company make exciting music together.

-Christian Carey

2 new CDs by JL Adams (Reviews)

John Luther Adams

Four Thousand Holes

Scott Deal, Percussionist;

Callithumpian Consort; Stephen Drury, director and pianist

Cold Blue CD CB0035

Songbirdsongs

Callithumpian Consort; Stephen Drury, director and pianist

Mode CD Mode 240

Alaskan (by way of New York) composer John Luther Adams was long known as the “other Adams” of contemporary concert music, overshadowed by Californian (by way of Massachusetts)  John Coolidge Adams, composer of the operas Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic and the Pulitzer prizewinning On the Transmigration of Souls. The balance of recognition seems to be shifting, as the Alaskan Adams has created several large scale works that have raised his public profile, such as the spatial percussion piece Inuksuit and museum installation (with an accompanying book) The Place Where You Go to Listen. Adams frequently speaks of “creating ecologies of music.” Both of the aforementioned pieces are based on aspects of Alaska: the former the traditional music of its native inhabitants and the latter shifts in the region’s weather patterns and tectonics (with an implicit demonstration of the impact of climate change on its environs).

Boston’s Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort, whom he directs, are staunch advocates of JL Adams. Two recent recordings present different aspects of his music-making, as well as still more contrasting facets of his adopted state. The tintinnabulation of percussionist Scott Deal’s vibraphone and chimes, Drury’s piano (which plays major and minor chords throughout), and a haloing electronic aura courtesy of the composer mimic the shifts in light and many crags found in a wilderness’ varied terrain. Within the half hour duration, Adams never allows this limited palette to grow stale; he continually refreshes the sound world with shifts of tonality and varied interactions between percussion and piano. Its companion piece …And Bells Remembered… takes the tintinnabulation still further. Alongside Drury, five percussionists use both mallets and bows to craft a slowly evolving tolling of bell sounds both high and low. Is it meant as a memento mori or as a secularized ritual or meditation? We aren’t told in the booklet’s aphoristic notes, but we are left with an incandescent sonic shimmering that again indicates a sweeping vista to the mind’s eye.

Many composers have incorporated birdsong into their music. Perhaps the most famous of these is the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), who was an amateur ornithologist and travelled the world to collect birdsongs; they appear in most of his compositions. Even Messiaen’s transcriptions of these arias of the animal world are somewhat limited by Western ideas of notation: they occur at a precise moment in the piece that is studiously indicated as a conventional (if complicated) rhythm. Adams has taken the incorporation of birdsong materials further in conception. Rather than prescribing when they are to occur, he gives the musicians phrases (transcribed in the field) as well as detailed indications of the habits and movement patterns of the various species which sing them. Thus, the musicians are tasked with accommodating their playing to approximate the birds’ preferences and the space in which they reside; not the other way around. Thus, creating an ecology of music involves much more than what’s printed on the page: it requires empathy, study, and imagination. While Messiaen is to be commended for paving the way towards this aim, songbirdsongs dispenses, insofar as is possible, with human expectations of formal trajectory and “pretty Polly” mimicry, instead replacing it with something wild, unfettered, and, in the performance captured hear, often enthralling.

-Christian Carey