Some of the most timeless, gripping, modern and surprising music I hear consistently are the vocal works of Renaissance Italian composers and their associated circle – Monteverdi, Gesualdo, the great Madrigalist Luca Marenzio. Saturday night at Miller Theatre I heard music from composers who were new to me – Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Il Fasolo (not Giovanni Battista Fasolo) and Marco Marazzoli – in a revelatory and affecting concert from the great early music ensemble, Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre.
Why Renaissance music at Sequenza21? First, Miller is as important for their early music programming as they are for their Composer Portraits, and second, they build the connection between the two eras not only abstractly through the two series but through a newer exploration of the past by way of the present. Last season they began a Bach Revisted series that paired early and new music musicians and programs (I saw an excellent concert with Kristian Bezuidenhout playing C.P.E., W.F. and J.S. Bach accompanied by Ensemble Signal, who themselves gave a masterful performance of Michael Gordon’s Weather, and since you can’t have Gordon without Reich and Reich without Bach, there’s nothing to argue ). The series continues this year with concerts that pair Bach with Kaija Saariaho, Reich and Joan Tower.
This fits into the ongoing history of music, where composers continue to write a cappella vocal works. I had a significant dose of them from John Zorn, including a set he explicitly calls “madrigals,” and there’s a good handful of contemporary vocal music built on the work of the ancient pioneers that has not only crossed my desk but been in the news this year. The critical point of all of this is that the old music is for the most part so much more daring, free and innovative than what I hear from contemporary composers, with some notable exceptions.
New vocal music has had a moment this year with Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize award for her Partita, which appears on the debut disc from Roomful of Teeth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the piece, but not much right about it either. There are contemporaneous vocal compositions that do some of the same things, do them better, and go beyond. Partita is polite music with a few accessories that might appear experimental but that are, in 2013, ordinary things in a composer’s toolbox. The teleology of her texts is shallow and brittle. Spoken words? Berio wrote and adapted far more compelling texts. Phonemes? Kenneth Gaburo’s works are older than Shaw and are still experimental. These tools are also better used in choral works on an excellent new CD of music from composer Kevin Puts. His work doesn’t sound as superficially ‘new’ but he makes richer, deeper and more proficient music with the same elements of text and fragmented vocal sounds.
His harmonies are also involving, and this matters. Harmony is the essential feature of the history of this music, it’s through the voice that composers created polyphony and counterpoint. But we’re supposed to know so much more today than they did in the 17th century, so why does Gesualdo sound so much fresher and newer than most new vocal music? His harmonic flights of fancy are surprising and effective because he creates a context that is clear, logical and describes the terms he’s working with. There is a fashion in contemporary vocal music of tossing in dissonant or extended chords that, since it’s in opposition to the overall harmonic context, comes off as a self-conscious way of asserting new music bona fides. That is one of the traps that Zorn’s work can fall into.
At edge of the trap but never falling in is a new work from Gregory Brown, Missa Charles Darwin, available in an engrossing recording from New York Polyphony. Brown works with history in two ways, cultivating a refined sense of vocal polyphony while setting Charles Darwin’s writing from On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and various letters. The harmonic motion is mostly strong and logical, though parts like the “Alleluia” section suffer from jarring modulations. It’s a strong work overall, though, and in particular Brown is the only contemporary composer I can recall who crafts vocal lines that have the same sense of independent harmonic rhythm and expressive freedom that makes the madrigals of Monteverdi and the like so powerful (there’s a fine companion to Brown’s piece, another new recording from New York Polyphony, Times Go By Turns, a collection of works from Byrd, Plummer and Tallis).
It’s enduringly strange to me how the techniques of Monteverdi have been left by the wayside. The combination of voices singing the same text, in counterpoint and rhythmic opposition, is one of the most beautiful and involving sounds in music, across all genres. Add words like:
Veglio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sface
Sempre m’è innanzi per mia dolce pena
Guerra è il mio stato d’ira e di duol piena,
E sol di lei pensando ho qualche pace.
(I watch, brood, burn and weep; and she, my undoing
Is ever before me, causing such sweet sorrow;
Warfare is my state, full of anger and pain,
And only thoughts of her bring me peace)
have immediate personal meaning to us across the centuries. Setting them as Monteverdi did gives them physical urgency and so the Miller Theatre concert was exciting and moving. Le Poème Harmonique, like other early music groups, sees this music as coming from the earth, the groin, not the mind and the heavens, so there is fire and humor. The program was “Combattimenti” which you can hear on this marvelous CD; it included Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It ended with Marazzoli’s La Fiera di Farfa, an astonishing dramatic parody of Monteverdi. For a while, it’s a dazzling picture of a fair, with hawkers, gawkers and more calling out, arguing, dancing. The parody comes near the end, when a ball breaks out and two gentlemen, friends, begin to fight. It seems in deadly earnest until the loser calls off the coup de grace by singing “Friend, you have won: I forgive you; you forgive me too. Indeed, in such circumstances it is a fine thing to be a base coward.”
In no way was this the experience of gazing quaintly back at the humanism of the past. Dumestre did something remarkable in this concert: there are songs within the larger piece, sung by characters inhabiting the fair, not only the faux-fight “Guera e Mort,” but two remarkable ballads, sung beautifully by tenor Serge Goubioud, “È no ssusciame’n canna (He cannot play a flute)” and “Vurria’addeventare pesce d’or (I’d like to become a golden fish).” In these moments, Dumestre moved the accompaniment from continuo-recitativo style repetitive bass and chord accompaniment, with a modern, vernacular sense of articulation and syncopation. Goubioud moved his voice from throat and head to his chest, and we were hearing popular music, as in-the-moment today as it was 400 hundred years ago. It felt liked the Marazzoli was here to keep us company with the knowledge that he knows our cares and loves and worries, because they are the same ones people have across epochs. The past is never past, the music of all eras speaks to us eternally.
But it would not if it wasn’t made with imagination and conviction. Those are the essential qualities of Andy Kozar’s remarkable recording On the End … . This is a superb collection of music, all the pieces exploring the possibilities of contemporary notation and instrumental playing. Kozar uses a variety of techniques, including graphic notation, and from the knife’s edge focus of the playing (Kozar plays trumpet and is joined by his colleagues in loadbang, Miranda Cuckson and others) it’s clear that he conveys his ideas to his musicians with precision and power.
The centerpiece is a Mass that has its foundation in the traditional movements and texts yet an expression that is at the cutting edge of creativity. Jeffrey Gavett’s voice croons and spits and shouts the words, through mellifluous lines and extreme intervals, while the instruments respond, sometimes amicably, sometimes antagonistically. There is a moment-to-moment fragmentation but an overall consistency of effect: the unfathomable mystery of death and how to express our incomprehension. Kozar steps outside the clichés of comfort and process, he never ingratiates and always fascinates. Like Le Poème Harmonique’s concert, it makes the past eternally alive, present and important.
(Houston, TX) If Houston is becoming, as one young Houston-based composer puts it, a “hub for contemporary music,” credit must be given to more than a few local ensembles, organizations, and venues that operate without institutional support and on shoestring budgets. Contemporary music ensembles made up of university professors and their students performing contemporary music in universities for other professors and students are nothing new. But composers who not only write, perform, and creatively program contemporary music and present it outside of academia in venues typically dedicated to performance art, experimental rock and underground noise? That’s a little more interesting, and certainly more conducive to expanding audiences for 21st century composition.
Composer Paul Connolly (Photo by Lynn Lane)
Houston-based composer Paul Connolly understands this. As the curator and producer of Brave New Waves, which was born out of electronic and video artist Jonathan Jindra’s Binarium Sound Series and is currently Houston’s only concert series dedicated solely to electronic music, Connolly has worked hard to bring seemingly disparate artists and audiences together to share and experience new sounds. On October 2,3, and 5, as part of the sixth annual Houston Fringe Festival, Connolly shifts roles from producer to composer to premier The Quiet Persistence Of Memory, an original electro-acoustic composition that, not surprisingly, will be performed by a wildly diverse collection of Houston musicians and improvisers.
The Quiet Persistence Of Memory is scored for bass, tenor, and soprano voices, viola, harp, contrabass, percussion, and analog modular sound tools. The ensemble Connolly has gathered to perform this work includes Aaron Bielish (viola), Kathy Fay (harp), Thomas Helton (double bass), Luke Hubley (percussion), John Pitale (percussion), Ben Lind (narration), Misha Penton (soprano), Matthew Robinson (tenor), and SPIKE the percussionist (percussion, electronics). Each of the three scheduled performances of The Quiet Persistence Of Memory will feature a slightly different configuration of the performers. The score, which Connolly describes as “a time-based grid that allows the performers to both see their part as well as existing parts of others that have been prerecorded,” is augmented by live improvisation and accompanying visuals.
“When I first began conceptualizing the piece,” says Connolly, “it probably had an equal balance between acoustic instruments and electronic material. However, the piece has evolved to where it has become very much a totally acoustic instrument work, with live electronics that are used almost like Foley in film. Very subtle, and simply providing a background that’s not necessarily noticeable.”
The title of the piece, aside from its nod to the surrealist painterSalvador Dali, refers to “the process by which information (i.e. memory) is encoded, stored and retrieved.” Connolly’s compositional process, which included recording studio performances by many of the participating musicians and incorporating those recordings into the piece for the same musicians to “remember” and react to in the live performances, speaks to the subject of how memory is utilized, disrupted, and (de)valued “in a hyper-information rich society.”
No two of the three performances of the piece will be alike, and kudos must go to the folks behind the Houston Fringe Festival for scheduling multiple opportunities for audiences to hear and experience Connolly’s music.
Paul Connolly presents The Quiet Persistence Of Memory October 2, 5, 9:30 PM and October 3, 8:00 PM at Super Happy Fun Land, 3801 Polk Street, Houston, TX. Part of the sixth annual Houston Fringe Festival.
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On a hot September 7th Saturday night, People Inside Electronics and LA Sonic Odyssey presented bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood in a concert of electronic and vocal music given at the Moryork Gallery in Highland Park. This was the Los Angeles appearance for Isherwood’s world tour that will also take him to New Zealand, Portugal and France. The evening included works by Michael Norris, Jean-Claude Risset, Lissa Meridan, Isaac Schankler and featured an adaptation of Karlheintz Stockhausen’s powerful Capricorn.
The Moryork gallery space was roomy and comfortable for the 40 or so in attendance and even though the interior walls were lined with all sorts of exotic items the acoustics were carefully engineered with several good speakers placed around the perimeter of the audience. A table with a soundboard and several computers completed the electronic setup. With Los Angeles sweltering in triple-digit temperatures the heat inside the gallery was an issue, but it did not affect the performance.
The first piece was Deep Field I by Michael Norris, a composer and software programmer who teaches at the New Zealand School of Music. Deep Field I is the first of a proposed series of works based on the Hubble Telescope Deep Field images. The electronics provided a suitably spare and expansively distant feel while Isherwood’s rich voice added a welcome warmth. The texts were taken from MUL.APIN, an ancient Babylonian star catalog, On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres by Copernicus and some 16th century French poetry by Pierre de Croix. The blending of voice and electronics through the speaker system was effective, although the vocals would occasionally overpower. This piece provokes feelings that are an interesting combination of the primal and the futuristic, inviting the listener to speculate about immensity of deep space and our place in it. Deep Field I was commissioned by Nicholas Isherwood and is well matched to his voice. Read the rest of this entry »
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Thursday night kicked off the Resonant Bodies Festival, a new 3-day parade of contemporary vocal music at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn.
Each night features three young singers performing programs of their favorite music. This curatorial freedom gave last night’s show a happy zealousness, where the singers’ enthusiasm for their repertoire was contagious.
Festival curator Lucy Dhegrae marked out a broad territory in her set. Beginning with Jason Eckardt’s mantic Dithyramb, she swiftly established her virtuosity in an elastic, preverbal but hyper-articulate world. In Old Virginny, by Shawn Jaeger, juxtaposed a forthright Appalachian lament with a snarling, snaky bassline, played athletically by Doug Balliett, to surprisingly tender effect. Balliett then took the mic for the premiere of his newest Ovid rap cantata, #11, Clytie and the Sun. While not the most arresting of his cycle (see Echo and Narcissus), it delivered a highly entertaining mix of humor and pathos, and Dhegrae’s theatrical arias, as the smitten Sun, were the perfect foil to his informal Narrator. Read the rest of this entry »
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The two-week long series of experimental music concerts in and around Los Angeles concluded Saturday, August 17 with es geht weiter a reading of nine compositions from members and friends of Wandelweiser, an international group of composers and performers founded in 1992. The event was held at the Wild Beast performance space on the Cal Arts campus in Valencia and was curated by faculty and Wandelweiser member Michael Pisaro.
Twelve musicians in various combinations performed the nine pieces and a number of these works were heard in the US for the first time. The instrumentation varied widely – including found objects, standard instruments played normally or by coaxing out new sounds, voices and various electronics. Many of the pieces were very soft with long pauses and this invited a high level of alertness and concentration from the audience.
The nine works offered in this concert were highly varied in their instrumentation and approach – here are some random observations and reactions:
Through the window and the wood – Daniel Brandes. Very soft solitary electronic tone that slowly increases in volume, is then joined by a voice and followed by silence for several minutes. The most subtle of pieces, the long silences and low dynamics are effective in putting the listener in a heightened state of anticipation. Read the rest of this entry »
As part of a two-week long concert series of experimental music, For John Cage (1982) by Morton Feldman was heard at The Wild Beast performance space on the campus of California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA on August 14. Dante Boon was at the piano and Andrew McIntosh played violin in the concert titled, suitably, ‘Bon Amis‘.
John Cage and Morton Feldman both have historical connections to Cal Arts: Cage received an Honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts from the Institute in 1986, and Morton Feldman was composer-in-residence that same year. The Wild Beast was named in honor of Feldman who, according to the campus website, “likened the ineffable creative energy in art to a wild beast.” The Wild Beast is an airy but not overly large space with good acoustics that were well-suited to this performance.
For John Cage is a quiet piece for piano and violin played at very low dynamic levels, yet all of the nuances could be plainly heard. Typically the piano plays a few notes or a soft chord and the violin answers, followed by a brief pause. The phrases are sometimes repeated, or the violin sounds first or they may play together – but the call-answer pattern predominates. For me the sequence was most effective when the piano made a declarative statement and the violin softly reflected off the slightly harder tones of the keyboard. This seemed to heighten nuances in the violin, especially in the quietest passages.
Dante Boon provided a solid foundation throughout, never tentative with the many piano entrances but always with the delicate touch that this piece requires. His sensitive playing set the stage for the violin and here Andrew McIntosh displayed amazing control of pitch and intonation, even when the sounds coming from his instrument were barely above a whisper.
Despite the fragmented nature of the piece – and its 75 minute length – it was never boring. This was due largely to the quality of the playing but also the fact that it was performed live in a space where the finest details were audible. The soft dynamics invite the listener to concentrate on each passage played and to create the context for it. This is challenging listening but those in attendance were engaged throughout – and there were happily no coughing attacks or cell phone outbursts to break the spell. This was an excellent performance of one of the landmarks of late 20th century experimental music.
The concert series concludes with Es geht weiter, music by Jason Brogan, Dante Boon, Taylan Susam, Sam Sfirri, Daniel Brandes, Stefan Thut and Johnny Chang at The Wild Beast, Cal Arts, Valencia, Saturday, August 17 at 5 pm. Admission free.
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The pseudo-fact that we are ‘visual creatures’ has been drummed into mass culture for the past several decades. It’s pernicious pieces of propaganda, one of those marketing tools that is so pervasive and in-plain-sight that social critics and paranoids searching for subliminal messages and methods of mass coercion not only overlook it, they embrace it. We see and therefore we buy what we see is the way it goes, from artful design to pornography to fine art, where currently overcompensated rentiers pay immoral sums for works meant that, when hung on the wall of the McMansion, are meant to dazzle and intimidate with their pedigree and cost.
It’s bullshit, of course. Yes we see and are interested in what we see, but our most important sense organ is our ears, we are hearing creatures. Our eyes are promiscuous and fickle, what pleases them changes from year to year and culture to culture. But our ears are connected to our lizard brains and our souls. The thing that goes bump in the night is universal and eternal, the way it sets our hearts racing and sense on edge is as human as it gets, and the effect that sound has on us is exponentially more powerful than that of images. As R. Murray Schafer has pointed out, we can’t close our ears.
On August 9, Christian Wolff’s Changing the System (1973) was performed by the new experimental music group Southland Ensemble, in the heart of historic China Town here in Los Angeles. About 40 people filled Automata, a small space at Chung King Court dedicated to the experimental arts, to hear Wolff’s politically charged and innovative work that utilizes graphical scoring designed to inspire a kind of consensus-driven interpretation from the players. Enlarged reproductions of the score were hung on the walls and the audience was encouraged to walk about and inspect them during the performance.
Christian Wolff is the last surviving member of the New York School of experimental composition that famously included Morton Feldman and John Cage. In fact it was Wolff who gave John Cage a copy of I Ching , stimulating that composers use of random processes in composition. And Wolff himself, according to the program notes, sought “to turn the making of music into a collaborative and transforming activity…” allowing the players to work out the realization of the piece within the guidelines of the score. Read the rest of this entry »
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It’s still so unbelievable and so marvelous, that John Cage would be able to perform such a piece on national television, on a game show! It’s the sort of thing that was not supposed to be possible before the Internet, but there it is, and at the time it was shown there was little chance that the federal government knew who was watching it.
“Water Walk” seems to me to be convivial, like a party, with the same aesthetic values as “Living Room Music,” something that friends should enjoy together in an intimate setting. It can be performed by anyone with the time and equipment to prepare and an inclination for quick thinking and good humor. I think Jenny Q. Chai has most of those qualities, but she’s a busy musician with many demands on her time, and in the living room concert venue, Spectrum, on May 7, she was a little flustered and a little rushed as she checked the running time on her iPhone and moved from object to object. Practicing the piano is one thing, setting up and knocking down all the bric-a-brac on tables, and doing it again and again, is a challenge on time that I don’t image Cage expected many musicians to undertake.
But in the context of the concert, and in the Spectrum setting with books lining the walls and easy chairs and couches, it was a convivial encore, a trick at the end of a good party. The party was a collection of old and new pieces, set together into short suites. Chai is known for her playing and her programs that demolish distinctions between past and present and show that the Western classical tradition is an endless flow, no part of it beyond the reach of any composer or the ears of any listener. The program was called Acqua Alta, the music having in some way to do with water.
She’s not the only musician who does this — most prominently in my mind is Marino Formenti — but she does so without didacticism, which is unusual and compelling. She plays the music with great skill, intelligence and commitment, but she doesn’t belabor her points or our need to hear what she hears, and as a critical listener I have utmost respect for that. I don’t think all the music she played in Aqua Alta was successful, but I was left feeling that everything she played was offered as it should be.
The opening suite sandwiched Kurtag’s “Hommage à Scarlatti,”, a couple Scarlatti Sonatas, and Gibbons’ “The Italian Ground” with premieres from Milica Paranosic and Nils Vigeland. Scarlatti’s are some of the finest keyboard works in the literature, and Chai played them with accuracy and insouciance, an ideal combination. All the older works put the new ones in difficult contrast, their combination of craft and the focussed exploration of controlled ideas set an example that Paranosic’s underdone, programmatic and overlong minimalism couldn’t match, Vigeland’s “I Turisti” sounded great, but the result didn’t match his own description, the composition too clear to encompass the sound of chattering tourists that was somehow supposed to drown out the music.
The large scale piece on the program was a new work from Michael Vincent Waller, “Acqua Santa,” that started modestly but grew into an ambitious and attractive work. Waller’s basic pulse both lengthens and picks up the pace as the music moves along, the structure builds from monophony to homophony, and there’s some of the pleasantly mesmerizing quality of watching waves from the shore. It’s essentially minimal without being minimalist in the repetitive sense, and the appearance of whole-tone scales develops an impressionistic aesthetic that elided nicely with the closing set of pieces: Ravel’s “Une Barque Sur L’océan,” Debussy’s prelude to “La cathédrale engloutie,” and Liszt’s “La lugubre gondola,” finished off with Marco Stroppa’s effective adaptation of a traditional lullaby, “Ninnananna.” This whole stretch of the concert was involving and powerful. While even the most sensitive, intelligent listener has to navigate their way through how a brand new piece should go, it’s easy to hear exceptional Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. Chai is great in this music: she has the technique to pull it off, the power to play it with expression and confidence, and the intelligence to make it coherent and meaningful. There are few musicians who can play both Scarlatti and Liszt naturally and convincingly — Formenti is one, there’s Mikhail Pletnev — and Chai does it. She plays Cage well too, and probably no one but the man himself can pull off “Water Walk.”
(Houston, TX) The music of the Houston ensemble The Core Trio, featuring Richard Cholakian on drums, Thomas Helton on upright bass, and Seth Paynter on saxophones, is an utterly convincing amalgamation of jazz, free improvisation, heavy metal, electronic sounds, and music from across the Asian continent. Their repertoire includes compositions by Helton and Paynter, as well as arrangements of songs by Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio. They often invite guest musicians to join them in performance, including trumpet players Kris Tiner and Tim Hagans, myself on laptop, and pianist Robert Boston. This Friday, Boston, saxophonists Warren Sneed and Martin Langford, and former Houston Symphony clarinetist Richard Nunemaker will perform with The Core Trio at their CD release party at Houston’s the long-standing jazz venue Cezanne’s.
The Core Trio’s new self-titled CD is welcome document of the high level of musicianship and inventive interplay that defines their sound. The album consists of two extended and completely improvised performances, skillfully captured by engineer Ryan Edwards. Boston, a former Houston musician now based in New York City, joins the trio on the new CD.
On both pieces, the classically-trained Boston casts the music into a further relief. His presence opens up the ensemble sound creating the space each player needs to be heard and to play with conviction.
“When I freely improvise with players on this level, something special happens,” says Boston. “No one feels any pressure to play in any particular style. Everyone is listening and responding to what is happening in the moment. When it’s good, the thoughts don’t get in the way, but there is a logic present that follows its own momentum.”
“It’s very similar to a speaking conversation with someone,” says Cholakian of his experience playing with The Core Trio. “If they (Boston, Helton, Paynter) choose a topic, I will converse with them on that topic. If they don’t, I will converse with them on a topic I choose, the bottom line being, what is my point and will it be heard?”
Cholakian is one of the most creative and dynamic drummers I’ve ever heard. He’s always listening, contrasting or complimenting the contributions of his band mates, and often steering the music into unexpected and unpredictable territory. Eleven or so minutes into the new CD’s second track, where the trio plus Boston explore a textural, musique concrète-like approach to ensemble playing, Cholakian brings the music to a crescendo with an almost primal-sounding drum solo that stops suddenly and startlingly at one point for six seconds of dead silence before returning to its bruising ritual.
Paynter possesses a truly original and honest voice on his instruments, which includes soprano and tenor saxophone, EWI, and lots of gongs. The technique and versatility that makes a great jazz and improvising musician is all there but somehow, his playing never strays into what Helton calls “the trappings of licks or patterns.”
“By learning to play with a defined structure, one can then learn how to venture away to new ones,” says Paynter when describing playing a tune verses freely improvising. “Everything has structure no matter how abstract.”
“As soon as I play a sound, that is the foundation for what comes next regardless if I’m playing a tune or not. Its basic function is structural. I can vary it slightly by subtly changing a rhythm or drastically with a timbre or emotional change. And those are just a couple examples of the variables one can employ.”
Helton concurs that being able to play in a traditional manner will allow a musician to be more musical in their free playing. But “tradition” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “jazz.”
“I get something different out of all the different styles I play,” says Helton, who also plays in the Houston metal band Echo Temple. “Whether it is jazz, classical, metal, country, funk, or whatever, there is some payoff personally, spiritually or musically.”
“With The Core Trio,” says Helton, “I get the most satisfaction, since there is a lot of passion, thought, aggression, finesse, communication. It is sort of the sum of all the things I love in music.”
The Core Trio with special guest Robert Boston perform Friday, February 8, 9 p.m. at Cezanne’s, 4100 Montrose Blvd. $10 cover.