Thursday, December 30, 2010

If you can stand another list...

you can find my favorite 15 albums of the year here, at the esteemed Billy Hepfinger's blog, Tenth Avenue Music.

But before you click on over, here are a few other year-end awards, commemorating everything from the worst to the weirdest of the year.

EPIC FAIL album of the year: Herbie Hancock - The Imagine Project

After pulling off the upset of all upsets during the 2008 Grammy Awards, I guess Herbie Hancock felt he was musically invincible, that even a silly idea like playing pop tunes with famous people around the world would turn into an epoch-defining album.  Well, he did that, and it was just as terrible as one would think.  I couldn't get through Seal and Pink singing the most ponderous version of "Imagine," well imaginable, before laughing in pain.

Honorable mention:  Brad Mehldau - Highway Rider

It was ambitious, risky, and messy (which I usually like, see linked list), but it never got airborne.  Mehldau is better with fewer people around him, not more.

Albums that probably would have made my list if I had actually heard them:

Steve Coleman & the Five Elements - Harvesting Semblances and Affinities
Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth - Deluxe
Geri Allen - Flying Toward the Sound
Myra Melford's Be Bread - The Whole Tree Gone
Jason Adasiewicz - Sun Rooms

Sharpest Dressed Performer - The JACK Quartet, Bang on a Can Marathon

Some very classy pastels belied the intensity of their performance of Xenakis' Tetras.  I then saw one of them go into Banana Republic after the hit.

Honorable Mention - Darcy James Argue at Cafe Oto
He's upgraded from baggy jeans and dark t-shirts to a garish silver vest.  Just needs to get matching ones for the band :P

Most Absurd Orchestral Moment - The opening three minutes of Marc Anthony Turnage's "Hammered Out" at the BBC Proms

He liked it and put a ring on it.

Honorable Mention - The New York Philharmonic performing Magnus Lindberg's "Kraft"

It's nice to see the notoriously crochety ensemble (they still haven't played a note of Phillip Glass!) take on a piece that requires the percussion section to go to a junkyard and then hang gongs from the ceiling.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Doubleplusunbad

The esteemed jazz critic of the New York Times, Mr. Nate Chinen, is hosting a virtual year end round table at his blog, TheGig.  Chris Barton, jazz critic of the Los Angeles Times, has some interesting thoughts about the Bad Plus, or more specifically, why they aren't talked about the same way, ten years after their debut album.
As for [Ethan] Iverson, and maybe this is simply the difference in being on the West Coast, but along the lines of the ‘mainstream conversation’ you mentioned it strikes me how little (present company excepted) the Bad Plus gets talked about anymore. Maybe after 10 years they’re just “that trio that does wacky stuff with the ‘120 Minutes’ songbook,” which would be a shame because I’m right there with you, Never Stop was their strongest record yet. Maybe there’s something in the ever-fractured promotion machine of 2010 that’s not serving them right, or maybe it’s a byproduct of not fitting into one category or another.
Hmm, very interesting indeed.  Oh, so what do I think?

I'm definitely with Chris on how potent the Bad Plus are at this point.  I saw them here in London during the jazz festival (twice for good measure) and I think my jaw was in some drooped position for 90% of the show (during the other 10% it was resting).  There are few things in this life more pleasurable than watching Dave King drum.

But in terms of the Bad Plus in musical media right now, at least part of it seems to be how people responded to them when "These are the Vistas" came out.  Most all of the reviews concentrated on the novelty of the covers, whether they thought it was good or bad.  Even the ads for the show in London mentioned those early reviews and described the band in those terms - post-modern jazz trio, as fun as highbrow gets.  By it's nature though, the novelty narrative dries up pretty quickly.

I feel (and Ethan & co. correct me if I'm wrong) that the band is so much more than "Heart of Glass" and have preferred to explore their many musical interests, rather than developing their image and touring with semi-big rock acts (something that Medeski, Martin & Wood did when they opened for Phish).  The Bad Plus jumped off a major label anyway, which gives them a lot more musical freedom and the ability to more organically affect how people view them.  They may not reach the same markets now, but they can connect to individual listeners in deeper ways.

What surprised me most when I saw them though is how the group has integrated so many influences into their collective sound that the music has this very pure, sui generis nature (which I hear in Braxton and Palestrina as well).  The fact that the music seems to defy the storylines pegged to it from the first album makes it hard to write about.  The Bad Plus are a few steps ahead of us, and I'm just fine with that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A London-Town Rundown

I leave London in T minus 3 days.  Kinda crazy.  Played much, heard much, learned much.  I'm going to miss all of that, but I don't know if I can wait any longer for real pizza and bagels.

So here begins an end-of-year show, complete with all the highlights of the past few months and some special awards at the end!

A Catalog of Every Show I have seen in London

September 11/12 - The Thames Festival - **1/2
CW Stoneking, aka the Blues Savant, and Sweet Billy Pilgrim were fun surprises.  The Pilgrim's tune "Kalypso" is just plain gorgeous.  Everything else was barely worth the price of (free) admission.

September 11 - Tom Arthurs Trio and Kit Downes Trio @ King's Place - ***
Some interesting ideas thrown around, but it was all a little too clean and polite.

September 25 - London Philharmonic @ Royal Festival Hall - ****
A fantastically odd mix of pieces stretching from the 15th century 'til today, and refreshingly void of 19th century middle class classics.  Vladimir Jurowski is an imposing and brilliant conductor.

October 2 - Django Bates 50th Birthday Bash @ King's Place - *****
I was going to a formal review of this mind-blowing show.  Then I heard tons of Batesian ideas cropping up in things I was composing.  If the music had burrowed into my system so quickly and subconsciously, there wasn't anything else that needed to be said.  Except that Bates' music gave me possibly the biggest music high in my life; tickles the brain and moves the feet.

October 8 - Henry IV @ the Globe - ****1/2
In America, it's nearly impossible to find a Shakespeare production without the sense of academic exercise.  In Shakespeare's recreated stomping grounds, there is no sense that his plays are dated or serious.  It's just damn good entertainment, always bawdy and rambunctious.  Falstaff was spot-on, as was the young Prince Hal (who happened to be my favorite actor from "The History Boys").

October 13 - London Philharmonic @ Royal Festival Hall - ***
Conductor Osmo Vanska was guesting.  He's gotten a lot of good press for his work with the Minnesota Symphony.  His wild gestures seemed to get in the way of the music.  The recent Magnus Lindberg piece that opened the program had none of youthful snark of his earlier work, and I really don't need to hear the Mendelssohn violin concerto for a while.  William Walton's first symphony is engaging for its peculiarities, how it prefigures John Adams, and the most of epic of snare drum hits in the finale.

October 16 - Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment & London Sinfonietta @ King's Place - ****
The program mixing Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" and its Italian inspirations highlighted latent similarities in very old and very new music.  A wonderfully transparent and engaging performance.

October 22 - The BBC Symphony 80th Birthday Concert @ the Barbican - ****1/2
The beeb is a new music machine, and gave premieres of two concertos on this night.  The percussion one was silly, the clarinet one was transportive and striking.  And to top it off, an incisive reading of Rite of Spring.  Conductor David Robertson was a perfect choice to lead the evening.

October 24 - Eric Whitacre with the LSO/LSC @ the Barbican - ***1/2
Really was the Eric Whitacre show, the LSO did what they could.  It was nice to hear Barber's oft-neglected "Knoxville: Summer 1915" and Whitacre's new piece showed off a darker side of his personality.

November 2 - The Royal Philharmonic @ Royal Albert Hall - **1/2
One star goes for the experience of sitting in that gargantuan venue.  The rest go to timpanist Matt Perry who can rattle the seats at the back of the hall when necessary.  Unfortunately, there was a conductor from hell (who liked to plug a pet charity no less), a nervous reading of the Mendelssohn violin concerto (ok, I'm going for a moratorium on this one), and an oboist left out to dry in the second movement of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony.

November 5 - Oliver! @ Theatre Royal Drury Lane - ***
The production really pulled out all the stops; an enormous cast, saturated dance sequences, a tech-savvy set.  The songs were as catchy as ever and the cast was adequate for the material, but sound clarity is impossible in a theatre of that size and the first 25 minutes of the play, no matter the production, are painfully boring to watch.

November 11 - The Philharmonia @ Royal Festival Hall - ****
The performance of Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun" proved how the piece is maybe the most sublime ten minutes of music ever composed.  Prokofiev's 2nd violin concerto was pleasingly off-beat.  And the orchestra really went for it on Tchaikovsky's oh-so-romantic Fourth Symphony.  It was penetrating and vulgar, music that speaks to the gut.

November 12 - A Century of Jazz Voice @ the Barbican - ***1/2
Gretchen Parlatto is breathtaking.  Nikki Yanofsky makes me nervous watching her.  The other singers did what they were called to do.  Conductor/arranger Guy Barker must not sleep.  Sort of fun in the end, but nothing special.

November 13 - Sam Crowe Group and Kit Downes Trio + 3 @ Royal Festival Hall - ****
Sam Crowe makes more nice-guy British jazz.  Kit Downes sounded a world away from what he was in September, much weirder, more risk-taking.  "The Wizard" was positively druidic in its mysteriousness.  Let's hope Mr. Downes continues down this dark path.

November 18 - Darcy James Argue Secret Society @ Cafe Oto - ****1/2
In-your-face music is best experience when your face is literally in the music (I could read Argue's scores from my first-row seat).  I think Josh Sinton blew my hair back a couple of times with his bari sax.  The band just keeps on getting better, more comfortable with Argue's challenging music.

November 19 - The Bad Plus w/Wendy Lewis @ King's Place - *****
I don't know if there's anything more pleasing in life than watching Dave King play drums.  Maybe the tightest band on the planet, their live shows are always a wonderful surprise.  And then Reid Anderson sang "Heart of Gold" as an encore.  If you don't come away smiling from a Bad Plus concert, check your pulse.

November 20 - The Bad Plus meet Django Bates @ King's Place - ****
Oh how I wish they just had time to rehearse a bit before doing this.  There were some exciting sparks and genuine fun, but it had some of the pitfalls of a first meeting.  Someone please put up the money to lock these guys in a studio together for a week and let them go at it.

November 26 - BBC Symphony @ the Barbican - ****
Another show packed with new works.  Sean Shepard's "Wanderlust" was intermittently interesting, but it was funny when he, the hairy hobbit, shook hands with conductor Oliver Knusson, Hagrid's older brother.  Copland's "Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson" just had a bit too much happiness in them.  But Julian Anderson's "Heaven is Shy of Earth" was gloriously messy, a mass by way of Wendel Berry.

December 5 - The London Symphony @ the Barbican - ****
Marin Alsop is a sparkplug on the podium and the orchestra responded in force.  The orchestra was able to convey both the dark and frolicking aspects of Beethoven's Leonore Overture no. 3 (with some tasteful alterations by Mahler here).  The ensuing set of Lieder by Alma Mahler sounded like ideas Gustav started, through into his garbage can, which she thought were good, and then completed in his style.  But even Mahler's incomplete ideas are a heck of a lot better than most composers' best ones.  The performance of Beethoven's 7th symphony was an absolute joy, the finale flying by at autobahn tempo.

And now onto the awards.

Music Awards

Best Condcutor - Vladimir Jurowski
Ok, so I've loved David Robertson for like ever.  He's probably still my favorite conductor out there.  But the award must go to Jurowski because of how he has left his personal stamp on an orchestra.  Jurowski is endlessly knowledgeable and creative, but more importantly, he's not afraid to use that knowledge and creativity to put together adventurous programs.  At 38 years of age, Jurowski is part of a wave of younger conductors (including Alan Gilbert in New York and Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles) who don't see classical music as something akin to an old painting hanging on a wall in a museum and are reaching out to new listeners.  Jurowski straddles the various tasks given to an orchestral music director and performs them as an experienced pro.

Loudest Orchestra - The London Symphony Orchestra
I really felt that Beethoven from the top balcony of the Barbican.

Best Percussion Section - BBC Symphony
I'm terribly biased here because my teachers play in this one.  But every week, these players have some of the hardest music on the planet thrown at them and they make it look remarkably easy.

Concert of the Season - Django Bates @ King's Place, October 2, 2010
May Django make 50 more years of wonderful, humorous, and unique music.  And may some smart arts promoter bring him to the states on a regular basis.

Venue Awards

Best Overal Venue - King's Place
Royal Festival Hall is too dry, the Barbican has a terrible location and odd stylings, and the Albert Hall has acoustics akin to a gymnasium.  You may not be able to fit a symphony into either hall at King's Place, but anything smaller than that, it's hard to find a better venue anywhere.  Both halls in the complex have impeccable acoustics and there's not a bad seat in the house.  Plus, it sports sleek, postmodern architecture and has an art gallery to boot.

Venue London needs more of - Cafe Oto
London has fantastic institutional support for the arts - just look at the number of major orchestras, large venues, and amount of news coverage.  However, because of this support, I don't get the same kind of quixotic energy from the musicians on the ground.  Musicians in London haven't had to become the player-composer-writer-publisher-promoter just yet, though with impending austerity cuts, that day may be just around the corner.  When that day comes, places like Cafe Oto in Dalston will have a great head start.  Oto caters to the fringiest of fringe music, anything from Japanese laptop experiments to the anarchic energy jazz of Peter Brotzmann.  The club is in an abandoned warehouse in a rundown area, but has a warm atmosphere and a dedicated staff.  It's the kind of place you see in the East Village or Brooklyn, but at this point are hard to come by in London.  Even with great institutional support, a lot of special music falls through the cracks.  There needs to be more Cafe Otos to scoop that music up.

Weirdest Venue Bathrooms - The Barbican
I think it's supposed to be some sort of trough, but it's really just a wall.  Beware of splashback.  And the foot-operated sinks threw me for a loop the first time as well.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

(Digital) Musical Dumpster Diving

If the book/movie "High Fidelity" was created now instead of 10-15 years ago, I feel Rob Fleming would flaunt the size of his iTunes library as a sort of come-on.  Kinda like that scene in "Up in the Air" where George Clooney and Vera Farmiga get turned on sharing the fancy plastic in their wallets.

I feel music snobs everywhere (myself included) can't help but judging one another by the size of one's digital library.  I mean, it's very easy to think that one with a large library has listened to a huge amount, and therefore must be more worldly and cultured.  Especially in a musical culture that prizes genre-bending and novel combinations, it's a potent statement if you mention that you can listen to music for a month straight and not hear the same song twice.

But a large library also poses many problems and I will say I'm not totally happy with the *mumblegarble*-eight gigs of music I have on my computer.  When my music collection was much smaller, say during my senior year of high school, I could really get into a particular album much more, really soak it in.  I listened to Kurt Elling's album "Nightmoves" so many times that year that I still can sing his entire vocalese solo (in my car, alone) from "A New Body and Soul."  Now with so much more music, I'm a bit overstimualted.  After listening to an album once, I make a snap judgment on it and move on to the next one in my library.  Sometimes I don't get a chance to listen to something new and just totally forget about it.  To be honest, there's quite a bit of music on my computer that hasn't been listened to at all.  I feel that's nearly sinful.

However, the endless abyss of tracks does allow for some pleasant surprises when I turn on the shuffle.  When I'm in the right mood (i.e. tonight), I won't hit the skip button very often and actually pay attention to what comes on.  I just had a nice surprise with a track from the trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.  I first heard Jensen on Maria Schneider's "Sky Blue" album and was really drawn to her playing.  She's great in that she's got a secure "bop" (if you can call it that) vocabulary, but is never someone who just connects the changes.  There's always unpredictability, an errant squeal, a warbling long tone.  Her solo the other night at the Secret Society gig on "Transit" was ecstatic and physically draining.  I've gotten a couple of her own albums over the past year and a half or so, but haven't given either of them a good listen for whatever reason.

The track that caught my ear tonight was Jensen's take on Bill Evans' "Time Remembered."  However, it wasn't for Jensen's trumpet, but the guest vocalist who added plaintive lyrics to Evans' melody.  The singing was sultry, but dry of usual jazz-singing histrionics.  It was really quite hip, sounding like something Gretchen Parlatto would do, not all that far from her delivery on "JuJu" from that vocal concert a couple of weeks ago.  I looked back to the track and saw that it was from 1997.

Wait, something that sounds so hip was really from 13 years ago?  How is it that whoever this singer is presaged some of the most important trends in modern jazz singing and yet hasn't made enough waves to make me seek her out and add her to my *mumblegargle*-eight gigabyte library?

Turns out the singer is Jill Seifers, a student at the Berklee College of Music at the same time as Jensen.  Seifers has released two albums under her own name, one a collection of standards recorded live with the pianist Michael Kanan, and another with a more varied program and an all-star backing band of peers from Berklee including Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, Joe Martin on bass, and Jorge Rossy on drums.  Judging solely on the band, the label (the great incubator, Fresh Sound New Talent), and the variety of material - from Ellington's "Solitude" to Mingus to Hendrix to her own stuff - it's probably a really hip record.  Seeing a program like this on a modern jazz vocals record is part of the territory right now, but was certainly more an anomaly 11 years ago when the album came out.

My question is that how a singer with a lot of forward thinking ideas and an arresting individual sound fell out of the business soon after.  Seifers hasn't released an album since 2000, hasn't appeared on one since 2004, and doesn't have a web presence.  Some investigation is due.  And despite the fact there's still eons of my own music to go through, I'm definitely going to be on the lookout that Seifers album.

Update 1:10 AM GMT: I went back and listened to the other track that Seifers sings on, the Kenny Wheeler composition "Consolation."  Towards the end of Seifers' scat solo, Jensen joins in and then begins some scary good interplay, like the two are of one mind.  And then it seamlessly returns to the melody.  Certifiable musical chill, big time. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Blogging the London Jazz Festival - Big Bands Redux

See below for some incriminating evidence of Wednesday night's RCM Big Band hit at the Bull's Head (you may need to turn up your speakers pretty high).

video

It's Gordon Goodwin's delightfully candy-shopped version of Miles Davis' "Seven Steps to Heaven," featuring Peter Whitehouse on trombone, Steffan Ciccotti on vibraphone, Toby Street on trumpet, and a little bit of yours truly on those drum breaks at the end.

Speaking of incriminating big band evidence, I was able to see Darcy James Argue's Secret Society on Thursday evening in their (very fringe) London debut.  My unyielding loyalty to Argue and his co-conspirators is well-trod, so it doesn't say much that I thought the concert was friggin' unbelievable, even better than when I saw them in New York about a year ago.  So instead, here are some comments, musings, and the like from last night's show.

#1: Cafe Oto is a gnarly venue
Really screams jazz club, doesn't it?
On the downside, it's quite a nuisance to get to - two tube lines plus the infrequently-running London Overground.  However, Cafe Oto is the kind of DIY venue that I hadn't been to in London before.  Oto takes up the first floor of a converted warehouse in the northeast London neighborhood of Dalston, land of the fried chicken shops it seems.  It has a vibe quite similar to 45 Bleecker in New York and caters to the weird and wonderful things that will never make it to Southbank or the Barbican.  And last night, it was packed.  It was so packed, I was virtually sitting up Darcy's butt.


#2: That first row seat was actually pretty frickin' sweet
During the break, the guy sitting behind me asked, "Are you ok with being that close?"  I responded that I'm a drum set player so I'm usually even closer to the sonic onslaught.  He then added that it was pretty amazing to have so many musicians in such an intimate space.  Very much agreed.

Speaking of sonic onslaught, my big band director in high school once made a particularly weird exhortation that we should make a phalanx of sound.  It only made sense to the two people that payed attention in world history (300 didn't come out until next year), but in terms of last night, it's a pretty apt description.  Not only were the full ensemble sections fiercely loud, but they were also perfectly ordered and balanced.  It was a wonderfully terrifying sonic experience.

They seem kindly and chill here, but trust me, Leonidas wouldn't wanna mess
It was especially terrifying when Josh Sinton brought his full force to bear on his baritone sax.  During the pulsing sections of "Habeas Corpus," I could only imagine how much more potent Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians would be if Sinton doubled the bass clarinet parts on bari.  During his solo on the new piece "Dymaxion," inspired by the American futurist Buckminster Fuller, the instrument seemed to buckle under the the torrential winds from Sinton's lungs, literally screaming in pain.
The Dymaxion Car

The advantage of that seat wasn't just sonic, but visual as well.  I had a nearly unobstructed view of Mr. Argue's scores, which excited my super-technical music nerd side.  For example, the other new piece on the program was called "Induction Effect," a meditation on how the human brain is so well-programed to disorient itself.  The piece began with what was supposed to be a totally disorienting vamp, but I had the inside scoop on how it all was supposed to work.  First the bass came in playing a straight triplet pattern in 5/4 time.  Drummer Jon Wikan laid down a fat rock beat on top. Then the electric piano played a different repeating figure that suggested a different time signature.  And then the guitar added another part that felt totally unrelated to the other three.  And the band came in and...

I just lost my place.

#3 The band's collegiality is inspiring
Taking a big band that plays unclassifiable and weird music on the road is definitely a shoestring effort.  The only reason the Secret Society was able to come over to England the first place was a grant from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation and the group may still end their trip in the red.

That being said, the only reason that 18 musicians would join up for such endeavor is that they love and believe in the music they're playing.  It's one thing when Darcy gets to travel to Europe and do his music with one of the state-sponsored big bands, but it's not quite the same as when the music is played by close friends and colleagues.  It was great to see folks like Ingrid Jensen in the trumpet section, Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, and Erika von Kleist leading the saxes.  These players (and many more in the band) are leaders in their own rights and could be off working on their own projects, or at least doing more lucrative studio work at home in New York.  Instead they chose to travel halfway around the world to play in some old warehouse in a dingy part of town in front of maybe 100 people.  If that's not for the love of the game, I don't know what is.

The Secret Society has grown from a pick-up band just a few years ago into a tight-knit group, truly co-creators in this music.  The band is more fluent now in Argue's complex musical language, more comfortable in navigating his cruelly difficult solo sections.  On "Habeas Corpus," trombonist James Hirschfeld gave it his all, soaring over the insistent background figures and on "Phobos," saxophonist Mark Small gracefully weaved his way through the chord sequence that changes on the whim of Mr. Argue.  But more importantly, they've developed a deep sense of camaraderie.  Erika von Kleist got a high five from Darcy for her stirring solo on "Obsidian Flow."  There were quite a few hoots coming from the band during the collective soloing of Sam Sadigursky and trombonist Mike Fahie on "Jacobin Club."  Trumpeter Matt Holman got a hearty applause from his bandmates for somehow navigating through the web of "Induction Effect."

No matter who plays the compositions, Darcy James Argue's music is dark, richly layered, and finely crafted.  But it takes the particular talents and commitment of his Secret Society to make it immediate and exciting, something that will stay in the listener's mind well after leaving the show.  Here's to the hope that Darcy James Argue will always have the help of a Secret Society to make his music too good a secret to keep.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Blogging the London Jazz Festival - Mid-Fest Update

Tomorrow evening features what very may be the mostly hotly anticipated performance of the London Jazz Festival.  Is it the Barbican's double bill of Charles Lloyd and Norma Winstone, featuring new MacArthur Genius grant winner Jason Moran?  Of course not!  It's the Royal College of Music Big Band playing at the Bull's Head in Barnes.

Alright, I keed, I keed.  But this is the one performance where I have to put the money where my mouth is and actually play, rather than just sit back and post snarky comments later.  We're doing a particularly old school set, but this isn't some lightly swinging dinner set.  There's some Thad Jones, Mingus, the Duke, definitely not background music by any means.  Our fearless director, Mark Armstrong, will take some blazing trumpet solos and hopefully we'll get through it all in one piece.

For my London readership (population: less than or equal to 1), come down to Barnes for our 8:30 PM hit.  For everyone else, I'm planning to do a bit of bootleggin' and if anything comes out ok, it'll make it's way onto the internets in some capacity.  Be on the lookout!

In other news, this guy from BBC radio 3 really liked Gretchen Parlato on Friday.  Take notes, Miss Yanofsky.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Taped Blogging the London Jazz Festival - Sam Crowe Group + Kit Downes Sextet

The Royal Festival Hall was packed on Saturday evening for a concert featuring Herbie Hancock and his ironically titled "Imagine Project".  Knowing that the audience, expecting a full-out onslaught of trippy Mwandishi kosmigroov, would be disappointed in Hancock's performance, the promoters threw in a free opening gig in the lobby featuring two British pianists whose best work is in front of them, rather than behind - Sam Crowe and Kit Downes.

There was quite the lively vibe at the hall, with families resting their legs after a big shopping day, old friends conversing over pints, teenagers just there to hang out.  I couldn't even grab a seat near the stage, rather electing to stand behind the back row of chairs in plain view of the drums (Even if I didn't like the music that much, I could at least pick up an idea or two).  It might not have had the same self-congratulatory optimism at the Undead and Winter Jazz Fests in New York, but there sure were a lot more people, and a lot more different kinds of people.  It seems that jazz is a lot less uncool in Britain than in the states.  Maybe it's the fact that there isn't this self-important "Jazz is America's classical music" preachiness to it all.
Don't they look nice!

That inherent coolness was embodied by the Sam Crowe group's slick attire (see right) - suit jackets with colorful shirts and jeans, pointy shoes, designer 5 o'clock shadow.  They look those "nice boys" your mom always wanted you to date...

Oh wait a sec, haven't I seen this before?
Downes, bassist Calum Gourlay, and drummer James Maddren have been playing together since starting at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2005, and they took the stage with a relaxed politeness. Like those "nice boys" your mom always wanted you to date. Except that Downes has a mighty beard and pony tail.
Oh right, I guess I thought the same thing about Kit Downes and his mates when I saw them a couple of months ago.  Is British instrumental jazz just "nice boy" music (also considering I haven't seen one female jazz instrumentalist on stage here)?

Certainly Django Bates is more than a little too intense and subversive for this category, but Sam Crowe seems to fit the bill quite well.  The pianist's harmonic palette is sweetly tonal, not far removed from the likes of Esbjorn Svensson or the American young guns Aaron Parks and Taylor Eigsti.  There's no down and dirty swing, no vicious attacks on the piano.  Crowe and his group seem content to sit in glossy landscapes, and that can be quite nice, at least for a while.

Although Crowe was working with deps in the drum and vibe chairs, the band sounded tight and surefooted.  It was clear they all knew the language of Crowe's music, which makes me wonder if the blend of poppy harmonies and icy even-eighth groove is the young British jazz musician's vernacular.  If it is, then I guess it's safe to say that British jazz speaks in a posh accent

But throughout the mostly mild-mannered set, there were some rhythmic sparks.  Bassist Jasper Hoiby in particular was never afraid to throw the soloist some slippery curveballs, his big tone penetrating the bustling room.  He and Crowe seemed to share quite a few devious smiles when interjecting on a vibes or soprano sax solo.  The last tune of the set was quite rhythmically playful and was dedicated to Crowe's nephew Max (don't worry, his niece Phoebe also had a song dedicated to her earlier).  It began with a sprightly major-key vamp, leading into a simple song, beguilingly innocent.  Everyone got to show off their chops playing over the quick tempo, but it always stayed in character.

As I waited through the stage change, my next review was forming in my head:
Kit Downes came on next and his set sounded just like it did last time, nice and pretty, blah blah blah...
The end.
Well, after about five minutes I was scrambling to erase what I had thought and just catch up with what was actually happening.  Downes, hair neatly cropped now but still with that beard, came on with significant reinforcements - 2 saxes and a cello - and a different drummer.  The band jumped right into a sort of tipsy parlor song, then seamlessly transitioned into a tune both folksy and funky.  Downes said afterward that it was inspired by pianist Keith Jarrett's tambourine playing in the 1970s, which he often did with his fantastically off-kilter and vastly underrated "American" quartet.  Drummer Tim Giles (on right) perfectly channeled Paul Motian (from Jarrett's band) on the tune with a thuddy sound and impeccable placement.  Already, this performance had a much wider trajectory than the one of two months ago.

Perhaps due to his success following his Mercury Prize nomination, Downes seems more willing to take ambitious risks in his music.  For example, on the tune "The Wizard," he let saxophonist James Allsop and Giles go for it at the outset before chiming in with deep, dark chords and keyboard-spanning runs.  This wasn't your Harry Potter playtime kind of wizard, rather something much more mysterious and druidic.  The music here wasn't afraid to ruffle the audience's feathers and was much more engaging for that.

It didn't always mean it was loud, in your face music.  On a ballad called "The View," Downes began the tune solo, playing much too softly for a noisy lobby.  Yet in a Cagean fashion, the shear quietness of the piano was so unnerving, it was impossible not to pay attention.  Throughout the set, Downes and his band played deftly with such contrasts in volume, harmony, timbre, and tempo (or total lack thereof).  Although such contrast may suggest a lack of individual vision, the contrasts here showed that Downes does indeed have a personal sound.  Everything was united by Downe's careful touch and intense patience.  The contrasts belie a multitude of influences, but all integrated into a particular vocabulary that Downes already speaks quite fluently.

Who knows what Downes' music will be like next month.  It's hard enough predicting his hairdo.
Before the last tune Downes mentioned that all the set's music had been recorded by the group and was going to be released on a new album in March of the coming year.  If the performance is any indication, this is certainly an album worth looking out for.  With the additions to his normal trio, Downes doesn't have to carry the weight of melody and accompaniment all the time.  He can be more texturally inventive while backing other soloists and also use the new voices to enrich the variety of his compositions.  Downes' music is starting to head down dark and mysterious paths.  While that means another Mercury nod is likely not in the cards (it'll be too terribly adventurous for a mainstream prize soon enough), it is clear we can expect great things from this young piano wizard.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Live Blogging the London Jazz Festival - A Century of Jazz Voice

Tonight is the official start of the London Jazz Festival with a big show at the Barbican titled "Jazz Voice: Celebrating a Century of Song."  My drum kit teacher at college, Ralph Salmins, was laying down the grooves for this gig and invited some of us n00b RCM drummers to sit on the rehearsal.  Below is my running commentary on all the afternoon's tuneage.

2:22 PM - Some preliminary thoughts.
This is a serious gig.  Seriously large that is - full big band plus strings and (count 'em) 9 vocalists.  My compatriot Oli says that the music director, trumpeter Guy Barker, leads this big band on a regular basis, having just released an album called "The Amadeus Project."  Oli promises it's not as cheesy as it sounds.

Speaking of cheesy, it's hard not to get any more cheesy than jazz + strings.  It's very easy for the tunes to just get loaded with excess everything, and then it all sounds like Hollywood circa 1940.  Because these albums sound dated from the first note, it's very hard to give them a sense of immediacy or distinct personality.  For a jazz + strings album to work, there has to be some subversive aspect, the soloist drawing the attention away from the backing.  Saxophonists Charlie Parker and Stan Getz both had turns with a jazzy orchestra with shockingly adventurous results, and Joni Mitchell's "Travelogue," a jazz + strings take on her back catalog, takes flight on the wings of Brian Blade's drums.

I have a feeling that this gig will have mixed results, depending on the singer and the repertoire.

2:32 PM - A look at the saxes
The 2nd alto player is wearing a Milwaukee Brewers shirt!  Considering how little baseball memorabilia I've seen in England, I'd like to know the story behind that one.

Hmm, the saxes are seated tenor-tenor-alto-alto.  Haven't seen that other than in Buddy Rich's band.  But then also the bari and bass trombone are as far away from the rhythm section as possible.  Considering how it hard it is to hear everything on a stage like this I'd move them to the other side...

2:39 - Gretchen Parlato and Butterfly
Brooklyn resident Gretchen Parlato is the jazz singer of the present, a consummately sure-footed musician with wide influences and creativity to burn.  One of the highlights over debut album from last year was her take on Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly," stripping the fusion anthem down to something percussive and tropical.  Adding a big band and strings to the mix could weigh it down but we'll see.

2:41 - Oo that's hip
Actually the string backings are pretty darn slick.  It's not as precious anymore, and with this production value it has a great studio hip-hop vibe.  Even Gretchen has to bounce along to that slippery backbeat.  Her warm and airy voice fits the string sound perfectly.  If this version made it onto some film soundtrack, it would be a hit.
Parlato's perfectly-sculpted hair never moves

2:45 - How was that?
A really satisfying performance, and shockingly the first time that Gretchen did this with Guy or the orchestra at all.  She's a musician's kind of singer, in total command of her instrument, always listening to the band, no trouble fitting in.

2:55 - JuJu
Now she takes on Wayne Shorter's JuJu with a funky groove in 3 (Kinda' like the last movement of Steve Reich's "Sextet"come to think of it, maybe a tad slower).  The orchestrations are a little too much here, taking it into film noir territory with all those harmon mutes.  And Gretchen has this little lyric "...footprints will lead us..."  That's a bit cheeky for the song, referencing another Shorter classic.

3:11 - Time for the big run
Wait a second, that's Dougray Scott from "Desperate Housewives"!  I promise I only learned that from Oli.  Really, I swear.  Anyway, he's the emcee for the evening.

3:14 - A big little overture
Woah, here comes the old school Hollywood scoring.  Sounds a little bit like what Gordon Goodwin does for Disney films.  Kind of makes you miss Gretchen already.

3:16 - Workin' hard and hardly workin'
Singers Charlie Wood (think the voice of Tom Wopat in the body of Jim Gaffigan) and China Moses (who has certainly learned good lessons from her mother Dee Dee Bridgewater) wander on stage for a bluesy number straight out of the overture.  I think there's about 50 too many musicians on stage to actually make this tune work.

3:24 - "Teach Me Tonight"
China gets a solo turn on this Rodgers & Hart ole timer.  Definitely one for the blue-haired ladies.  Barker does his best Nelson Riddle imitation.  China is quite the gregarious performer but doesn't bring any new insights this time around.

3:29 - "It Never Entered My Mind"
Up next is Jacqui Dankworth, the first daughter per se of British jazz (her parents are the late jazz saxophonist Johnny Dankworth and the singer Cleo Laine), singing another oldie.  Her voice is clear and big, with a bit of a posh accent (ma-e ma-eend). She doesn't oversing, admirably, preferring to project a pensive and stately mood.  Somehow the clarity makes me think of Judy Collins, which is funny considering Collins is about as un-jazz as you can get.  Either way, this is how you do a straight-ahead standard and make it work.

3:35 - An homage to Peggy Lee
All of the tunes here have some anniversary connection to 2010, like the performer died in 1980, the composer turns 70 this year, the actor who played that character in the movie this song's from was born in 1890, you know all those insightful connections that make the songs more meaningful.

Peggy Lee would have been 90 this year, so Georgie Fame performs her pseudo-latin version of Cole Porter's "Always True to You (In My Fashion)."  It's very '50s, and positively silly in an endearing way.  Georgie sings with a theater actor's gusto and Barker's arrangement doesn't shy away from humor, especially in a cruelly difficult string pizzicato section.

3:41 - Butterfly back
Gretchen returns to sing "Butterfly" again.  It feels a bit cheapened in context with the rest of the program, the strings don't pop like they did before.  But as it goes, it becomes easy to hear that the band is having a lot more fun with this one, with all the tricky meter shifts and the infectious groove.  Ralph is particularly impressive here, because he nails the chart while still being playful, really goes for it at points.  It feels like the rhythm section is really committed to this one.

3:47 - Average Sinatra is still great fun
In a pleasantly surprising turn, Hamish Stuart of The Average White Band comes on to sing a Sinatra signature, "That's Life."  They got this one in because Sinatra joined the Tommy Dorsey Band in 1940.  Really, did you really need to be so desperate for this connecting theme?

To be totally honest, I'm still thinking about Butterfly for the first couple minutes of the tune, but then those fat-back horns and old school 6/8 R&B groove finally get me.  Stuart seems to just be having a blast whenever he performs and really milks the fantastically cliched half-step modulation on the last verse.

3:52 - The band gets a bone
In order to demonstrate how instruments can evoke the human voice, the band brings out the one musician who can make a piece of wood breathe... Guitarist Bill Frisell!

No, Alan Barnes did not have one of those
Alright, alright, maybe in my dreams, but clarinetist Alan Barnes jumps up from the reed section to perform Artie Shaw's clarinet concerto.  Barnes, who also had been doing a lot of bari and bass clarinet work up there, seems to be London's answer to Scott Robinson (see right).  Except less weird - no stupidly large instruments, no planet-speckled vests.

The composition itself is a fun piece of novelty, using every popular dance beat, every clarinet trick, and even some nifty meter changes (I guess Shaw beat Steve Coleman to the punch by forty years).  This episodic music would lend itself perfectly to a Pixar short.

But the performance seems a bit stiff, not quite nailing the proto-rock 'n roll attitude of the "Roll 'Em" vamp.  And Barnes first taps his foot on all four beats to the bar, and then 1 & 3.  Oof, let's lay into those backbeats folks.  At least there wasn't hand clapping in this one.

4:04 - I Wonder what's next
Dougray Scott calls the next performer, Noel McKoy, the godfather of British soul.  Does that make Paul McCartney the great-godfather? (Exhibit A: Gotta Get You Into My Life, Exhibit B: Let it Be) 

Scott performs Stevie Wonder's "I Don't Know Why I Love You."  Wonder is a natural choice for a big band/string thing because he was pretty much a big band writer in his own right, except he used layers upon layers of synths as opposed to horns.  I'll argue that he's the next logical step after Duke Ellington, but that'll be for another day.

McKoy really does a good job matching Wonder's particular timbre and phrasing, but has a darker tone down low.  His big range jumps really stick out in that regard.  The band isn't quite funky enough at the outside but a potent tenor solo that would make Lenny Picket proud helps push it forward to the big ending.

4:09 - Faith at long last
The fruit was foregone for this performance
Before leaving for London, my composer friend Tim told me about this weird new pop scene coming out of London that was like cosmic David Bowie does 1940s/50s cabaret.  He didn't quite get it, but told me to check it out anyway.

I have been bad and have not sought this music out, but then the next singer in the program happens to be the reigning queen of this style, a singer who attempts to merge the husky soul of Amy Winehouse with the obscene grando-pomposity of Lady Gaga - Paloma Faith.  The British music TV show host Jools Holland says Faith's voice is reminiscent of Etta James, so obviously Faith's tune is "At Last."

Faith bounds up the stage with a ridiculous getup - huge curly red locks, aquamarine dress suit, polyurethane-pink heels.  And I mean heels.  Faith's imitation is quite awkward.  She really tries hard to do everything James does, but it's impossible to figure out if she's doing it respectfully or ironically.  So therefore I don't know whether to laugh or cry.  She seems much more of an actress than a singer, more interested in the production than the song itself.  It sounds like a hollowed out version of what the tune should be.

4:15 - The cheese is on ice
Frank Loesser was born in 1910.  Apparently, according to Mr. Scott, was another allegedly famous American songwriter, Frank Loss-er.  Oh well, I'll give him a break because he's Scottish and at least pretended to know who Herbie Hancock was during the "Butterfly" announcement.

Charlie Wood and Jacqui Dankworth return to do that oh so trite duet, "Baby It's Cold Outside."  For me, you're not going to get any better than Rudolph Nureyev and Miss Piggy on the Muppet Show, just because it amps up the preposterousness to well, preposterous levels.  But I'm open to see what they can do.

The tempo here is a bit slower than usual, a bit sleazy.  By the time the band settles in on the first verse it's downright sexy swing.  The performance really benefits from this, highlighting the sexual tension covered up by Loesser's cute lyrics.  Wood is great as the alpha male while Dankworth's straight-laced appearance suits her character well.  Alright, I'll put this one in the pleasantly surprised pile.

4:21 - The moment we've all been waiting for
Nikki Yanofsky is the Justin Bieber of jazz.  Same age, same nationality, same kind of fawning-over on daytime TV.  She's asked to test the mic and says "Do you want me to sing?  Ok.  I don't know why this just popped into my head but... When you wish upon a star..."  No comment.

Luckily we are spared a full orchestra rendition of that one, and instead are treated to an uptempo version of Ray Charles' "Hallelujah I Love Her So."  In light of the "It Gets Better" campaign, I thought it would be a nice gesture to keep the lyric's gender the same.  Oh well, I guess we'll leave the political statements to Ke$ha.  Wait, did I just say that?

Less than halfway through the first verse, Nikki just flat out grabs the mic from the stand and takes over.  She has a very demanding stage presence, but there's something just a bit uncomfortable about it.  I don't know if it's shear nervousness, or fear of not being liked, or just raging hormones (she's 16 for crying out loud), but she doesn't seem able to be a real human being on stage.  She doesn't look back to the band or the conductor at all, doesn't project a feeling of warmth and intimacy to the audience.  It sounds like an Ella Fitzgerald-spouting automaton, or a drama queen that doesn't know when to turn it off, rather than a living, breathing jazz singer.

4:45 - Break time
I take a mosey on up to the CD store on the second floor.  They're piping in Nikki Yanofsky.  I think I'd rather just listen to Ella.

5:00 - But not for long...
The band is back in full swing, washing the theater with schmaltz, schmaltz, and more schmaltz.

Wait a sec, it get's modal all of a sudden.  The band, which has been licking its chops all day, finally gets to chow down on some moody post-bop.

5:04 - Jump cuts
Wait a sec, it's now Charlie Parker's "Ornithology" all of a sudden.  Woops, I mean Canteloupe Island.  No, Chameleon.  I'm sure I actually said "St. Thomas," which gets another goofy string pizzicato treatment.  And now we're back in modal land.

I really don't get this medley at all.  Must have something to do with the anniversary thing.

Update, Saturday 13 November 2010, 10:05 PM GMT: Upon further research, all these tunes have a birthday in 2010 connection.  Charlie Parker would have been 90.  Herbie Hancock has turned 70.  Sonny Rollins just turned 80.  And that modal tune that bookended the medley is by the Anglo-Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, who also has turned 80 this year.  Methinks a little happy birthday quote somewhere in there could have made this a bit clearer.

5:13 - Mosey on by
China Moses returns to sing Dionne Warwick's "Walk on By."  It gets a sultry Bossa Nova treatment and it kinda works.  It's just that perfect tempo for a lyrical piano solo and the piano man takes full advantage.

5:19 - Send me a downbeat
Nothing says Film Noir like artsy black and white photos
Scott announces (apparently to those in the audience who potentially suffer from amusia) that Guy Barker (on right) likes film noir.  "Send Me Someone to Love" has all the right noir-ish trappings, like those swirls of strings and raunchy trombone plungerings.  On the last pass through the verse, Hamish Stuart funks up the melody and then the band comes down splat on the downbeats.  No need to be slickly syncopated here, just send a bullet through the audience.

5:25 - Delightfully placid cruise
Noel McKoy returns to sing Smokey Robinson's "Cruzin'".  The guitar really sets the groove up nicely with some bluesy fills and pointed strumming.  It all just lets Noel do his thing.

5:30 - Zhu-Zhu
I guess the Scotts have a particular way with their J's.  Parlato returns for a full run of "Juju."  Her voice emerges at the top from a green gray mist, delightfully unmoored from the thick accompaniment.  On this run, Parlato's improv solo is startlingly gorgeous.  I can't really call it scat because she doesn't really sing anything faster than a quarter note.  It's a solo of manipulated sustains, playing with the length, volume, and color of each note.  One swell just freezes my spine.  After the final melody, Parlato gets one more solo on the outro, singing a repeating rhythm that always pushes over the next bar line.  It's rare to find a singer with this kind of rhythmic control.

It then all fades to nothing.

5:37 - "Let's Get Lost" is sound advice here
Paloma is back on stage, and in contrast to Parlato's rhythmic control, Faith is unable to snap accurately on 2 and 4 while singing.  Some of these performances today aren't doing much to dispel the British people's reputation for lack of rhythm.  At least Mr. Scott learned from his past mistake and announced that the song was by Frank Lesser.

5:41 - "Everything Happens to Me"
Having listened for more than 3 hours at this point, everything's starting to run together a bit.  But then Georgie Fame says that he's going to do a little Chet Baker and jumps into an impressive bit of vocalese, even nailing those quick bebop runs.  Parlato looks up from her macbook.  Fame proves he's more than just an old crooner and gives the audience a wake-up call in the process.

5:47 - To take your mind off tough economic times...
Charlie Wood returns to sing Ray Charles's "Busted."  It's a really down and dirty 6/8, but gets a nice push from Ralph's hi-hat.  There's a pitch perfect trombone solo and then Charlie takes us out.

5:51 - One last little bit of dairy for ya
When the word "wizard" exits Dougray Scott's mouth, I already have a complete conception of what the next song is going to sound like, note for note.  Yanofsky's waiting in the wings, it's gonna be "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," I can just turn on the Katherine McPhee version.

Ok, that's more than a bit presumptuous, but now after the first A section, there hasn't been anything to convince me otherwise.  Yanofsky's voice is a little frail at the extremes, but I think that's a good thing.  I'm brought into the song more, beguiled by the child-like imperfections.  But then Yanofsky goes for the belt again, and the character isn't any different than what I imagined.  Barker throws in a slick reharmonized turnaround on the last verse, but it still ends as a syrupy sweet.

Because of this very Broadway take on the song, I'm thinking about where Yanofsky's going to go from here.  Is her love of jazz singing going to bring her from Ella to Abbey Lincoln to Betty Carter to Luciana Souza and eventually to her own mature style?  Or is she going to stay on this pop-oriented route and then when she becomes yesterday's news, will make a guest appearance in some big budget musical, a la Clay Aiken?

5:57 - Take us out Ralph
What's a better way to end this evening than with a rousing rendition of "Sing, Sing, Sing"?  Well a whole Louis Prima medley of course.  There's "Just a Gigolo" and "Jump, Jive and Wail", but sadly no "Pennies from Heaven."

6:12 - That's a wrap
The shows over, and I'm on my way out.  But everyone else... they gotta do this whole thing again in an hour.

Update 13 November 2010, 11:34 GMT: Apparently Peter Quinn liked the real performance a lot more than I liked the rehearsal.  So did Londonjazz. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Americana in Earnest

N.B. I've noticed since coming to London that concert reviews here are really short, maybe about 400 words if the author is lucky.  Everything also gets a star rating.  Consider this an attempt to write a London-style review.

Eric Whitacre with the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra - ***1/2

Composer Eric Whitacre has a new album out on Decca Records, called “Light and Gold.”  That title is a canny descriptor of both the music and the man behind it.  Whitacre’s pieces are built with thick and heavy harmonies that seem to glow in their earnest tonality, earning them ubiquity at American high school band and choral concerts.  With this performance pedigree, it was understandable that when Whitacre led the esteemed London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a concert of his works, he could barely contain his enthusiasm.

“Thank you… um.  I love London!” Whitacre exclaimed at the start of the performance.  With his shoulder-length blond locks and perfect J. Crew stubble surrounding a billion-megawatt smile, it was impossible not to get caught up in the aw-shucks of it all.

The earnest music was perfectly suited to match the mood.  On the program, Whitacre paired his pieces with others by his American forebears, a sort of catalog of influences.   Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” for choir and orchestra opened the concert.  Aside from some brassy sound effects in the playful “I bought me a cat,” Copland did little to dress up the folk tunes, instead building simple and sturdy arrangements.  Whitacre wisely stepped out of the way and led a performance that was clean of sentimentality. 

The mood darkened heavily with “Mid-Winter Songs,” by Morten Lauridsen, Whitacre’s tonal godfather.  Lauridsen chose to set the music to disarmingly personal love poems by Robert Graves, blowing up the author’s emotions to billboard size with monolithic chords and thunderous percussion.  Even with an impassioned performance by the orchestra and choir, the anguished narrator drowned in orchestration.  Whitacre also included Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” a piece whose elegant craftsmanship Whitacre agonized over while studying at the Juilliard School.  Soprano soloist Hila Plitmann, Whitacre’s wife, worked hard to send James Agee’s stream-of-consciousness text to the back of the hall, but was too glam to project the girl-next-door vibe the piece feeds on.

Because the concert was also a British coming-out party, the program was filled with several of Whitacre’s million-dollar pieces.  “Water Night,” “Sleep,” and “Lux Aurumque” certainly fit that bill, washing the audience in milky tone clusters that were never dissonant enough to offend the audience.  “Rak HaHatchala,” a set of five Hebrew love songs with lyrics by Plitman, was more agile than the others.  The troubadour melodies were not weighed down by harmonies here, instead quietly pushed along by a tambourine.

But the centerpiece of the program was Whitacre’s new commission for the LSC, “Songs of Immortality,” featuring dark, reflective poems by Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson.  It was a deeply personal work for Whitacre, completed while his father suffered through severe health issues.  The optimistic major keys of “Sleep” and “Lux Aurumque” were replaced by ambiguously minor modes, while the burbling orchestral writing gave the choral parts tense momentum.  “Immortality” isn’t going to be another gold-selling composition for Whitacre, but that’s a good thing.  The piece shows that Whitacre can do more than sweetly beguile an audience, that there is dark substance beneath the innocent exterior of both the man and his music.

Monday, November 1, 2010

It's a small...

...music world at least.  One of the fun things about going to a music school is that even overseas, it's pretty easy to find people with mutual-musical friends.  Like a few of the exchange students at RCM from Boston University had a high school friend of mine as a counselor at music camp, and one of the percussionists here met another percussionist at a festival in Germany that I had roomed with for a seminar in Philadelphia.

Yes, the music world, and the percussion world in particular, is a small place, further evidenced by the daily "friends suggestions" I get on Facebook.  Some of them have been quite amusing, and a bit flattering, as the all-powerful Facebook thinks I am 1 degree removed from super-crazy-talented musician X rather than 6.  Here are some interesting names that have popped up:

Killin' Drummers:
Billy Kilson, the mother-funkiest drummer on the planet, even when playing with that dashing blond trumpeter I always get awkwardly asked about by relatives at party.  Instead of expressing my near-loathing of this player, I like to answer, "He's gotta great drummer!"

Ari Hoenig, an athletic wild man on the kit, who also likes to play jokes on the audience by playing the beat like a 16th note off from where it should be.  Super sneaky.

Old-school jazzers:
Bassist John Clayton, who always swings most gracefully and whose big band is much beloved by the Grammy-nominating committee.

Saxophonist Lew Tabackin, who still makes surprisingly satisfying neo-bop with his wife, the pianist and composer Toshiko Akiyoshi.  It's sad that their long-time big band folded back in 2003.

Pianist George Cables, who is generally known as a great straight-ahead guy, but I first heard him playing a mean Fender Rhodes on a peculiar and fun album with vibist Bobby Hutcherson.  He went through a period of kidney and liver problems a couple of years ago, with no insurance to boot, so it's nice to see that he's ok enough to make a facebook profile.  Oh yeah, and play all over the place.

Classical Percussionists:
Greg Zuber, principal of the Metropolitan Opera and head of percussion at the Juilliard School.
Michael Burritt, head of percussion at the Eastman School of Music, and the guy who started the percussion teaching merry-go-round that complicated my college choice 2 years ago
Steve Weiss, perhaps the most famous person in the percussion realm.  Who else are you going to go to for a 48 inch gong, or that exact timpani mallet for the excerpt form Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra?  And it will somehow get there the next day.
Nebjosa Zivkovic, virtuoso percussion soloist.  But that doesn't give him an excuse for his exceptionally cheesy web intro and press photos.
Colin McNutt, well kinda sorta.  He's big in the drum corps world.  Like he has his name a drum stick big.  Actually come to think of it, all of these guys do.  I think that's the sign you've made it.

There are some suggestions of people I've actually met before, whether at college auditions, music festivals, or just sneaking backstage after a show. There are percussionists Chris Deviney, Alan Abel, Jonathan Haas, and Doug Perkins; jazz(?) improvisers like saxophonist Steve Wilson and guitarist Grey McMurray.  But either way, though I've friended musicians in the past after I saw them play and maybe got an autograph, I think I'll hold off here.  Do I really need to know that Steve Weiss has a thing for tie-dye and that Greg Zuber takes his triathlons as seriously as his paying gigs?  Oh wait...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Know Your London Orchestras! A (B)ig (B)irthday (C)ake (S)urprise...

Considering the shocking (to an American at least) number of orchestras in London, one would think that the public professional orchestra has had a long and storied tradition here.  Well that's not really the case, especially considering that for an English cultural institution to have a long and storied tradition, it has to have been around for hundreds of years like Shakespeare's Globe or the University of Oxford.  And while across the pond the New York Philharmonic is pushing 160 years old, the oldest permanent professional orchestra in London had a birthday yesterday and is a whipper-snapper of 80 in comparison.

So to which orchestra should you send your warmest wishes?  Well from the obvious titular hint, it is none other than the BBC Symphony!

But wait a minute!  Wasn't the London Symphony Orchestra founded in 1904, making it a good 26 years older than the BBC?  Well, the LSO unfortunately was one of the many casualties of the Great War and really didn't exist from 1916 through 1919.  The BBC Symphony has exploited this loophole for marketing purposes because just like in the US, inflating one's relative age in Britain also inflates one's prestige (just ask the Universities of Pennsylvania and Delaware; I promise they're not really older than Princeton). 

But either way, it took a while for British orchestras to leave the Royal chambers and churches, and yesterday was indeed a special day for the flagship orchestra of the British Broadcasting Corporation.






David Robertson, who wore that same shirt last night
And what better way to celebrate this momentous occasion than with a concert highlighting both the BBC's storied past and its present vitality.   Led (slightly ironically) by its American principal guest conductor David Robertson, the orchestra presented two new concertos book-ended by past staples at the Barbican Center (the LSO's home ballpark, just to further the irony).

The concert began with one of those staples, Wagner's Overture to the Flying Dutchman, a piece that was performed during the BBC's inaugural concert on October 22, 1930.  Considering my distaste for historical fetishization, it was somehow appropriate I arrived minutes late to the concert and only heard the overture through the tiny lobby speakers.  But from talking with percussionist Alex Neal earlier in the week (my teach at Royal College), the piece was really just to get the blue-haired ladies in the door and not something the orchestra was really excited about.  In the end, no big loss.

So my evening with the BBC instead began with the brand-spankin' new ConcertO-Duo, a percussion concerto for the young men of, you guessed it, O Duo (Owen Gunnel and Oli Cox, RCM grads!) written by Stephen McNeff.  The piece began with a gargantuan percussion setup strung across the front of the stage, but no percussionists.  As the orchestra played on, it seemed to be a bit of a dadaist joke until the duo ran up from the auditorium's side doors, reaching their posts just in time to deliver an ear-numbing thwack.  However, the setup continued to serve a dadaist purpose as the next portion of the concerto featured the percussionists' formidable polyrhythmic clapping technique and the beautiful sounds they can coax from a wooden stage with little drumsticks.

O Duo took to their setup bit by bit, adding groovy tom-tom runs to the orchestra's vaguely bluesy backings, then some woodblocks and cowbells for spice.  As the players switched to marimba and xylophone, their parts were assimilated into the orchestra's.  It wasn't a concerto where the heroic soloist(s) was pitted against an orchestral onslaught, but one where the two worked as a team, using their varieties of instrumental textures to create an intoxicating sound world.  Until orchestra percussionist Alex Neal interrupted everything with a ferocious seizure for two flexatones.

See, even O Duo's press kit photos are silly
But of course there had to be some show of percussive virtuosity, and that came near the end of the piece during the extended cadenza.  Oliver Cox started a descending run at the high end of the marimba.  Then Owen Gunnell followed him (literally) step for step down the instrument.  When Cox reached the bottom 5 octaves later, he scampered back to the top for another ride.  Then Gunnell did the same.  Cox liked the run so much he went back again, this time faster.  So did Gunnell.  By this point the crowd was snickering, which was obviously a cue to go on to the groovy Latin section.  It was nearly danceable, but there is no dancing at British classical concerts, only gentle swaying at the last of the Proms.

Alright, so the cadenza ended, followed shortly by the piece itself in a final flash of loudness.  The crowd gave many ovations.  They seemed to enjoy all of the silliness that had ensued.  But unfortunately, that silliness seemed to overshadow some seriously beautiful moments scattered throughout the piece, like the part when the xylophone and marimba traded surprisingly lyrical melodies despite the brilliant attack of hard rubber mallets.  Considering that percussionists always seem to want everyone to take them more seriously, another percussion piece that emphasizes show-man choreography and a massed array of bells and whistles isn't what percussionists need right now.  The instruments become the stars rather than the players.  In the end, all of the wonderfully musical things O Duo did throughout the piece were pushed out of the audience's memory by the mad-cap marimba run.

The second half began in a darkened hall with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's recent clarinet concerto D’om Le Vrai Sens, which I think roughly translates to "On the True Meaning Of."  The open-ended title is quite apt for the wonderfully abstract piece, performed last night by another Finn, Kari Kriikku.  The music lit up the darkness with eerily lush string chords that perk up the spine and tense muscles.  It was so powerfully transporting that when I heard a cellphone beep, I mumbled a serious "fuck you" for disturbing my reverie.  And then out of nowhere came a sound like a rocket, a growling clarinet from an unseeable source.  The line continued, as the clarinet didn't just play notes, but notes between the notes, sounds beyond the notes.  Sometimes the clarinet would melt into the orchestra and suddenly reappear.  It was hard to know where each sound was coming from, especially with the extensive use of amplification and the fact that I still couldn't actually see the clarinetist.  No matter, as it was interesting enough to watch David Robertson's careful gestures and the percussion section's muted entrances.  I was adrift on a cool, gray sea and wasn't hoping to leave any time soon.

Peter Sellars, renowned opera director and Belo Knock, renowned clown
By the beginning of the second movement (though I hesitate to break the seamlessly flowing piece up in this way), the clarinetist was on stage, wading through the orchestra, making wide gesticulations to emphasize the color of each sound.  The choreography and lighting for this performance, conceived by famed opera director Peter Sellars (who has yet to change his clown-like hair style), added to the otherworldly quality of the music.  After moving across all of the stage during the second and third parts, the clarinetist became a pied piper, taking most of the violin section with him back into the audience.  Although I couldn't see much of this development from my balcony seat, I'm was pleased to hear from my stalls-seated friend that the string players were as into this final set of choreography as the impassioned clarinetist.

When the piece finally let the atmosphere dissipate, four concert-goers to my left bolted for the door as much of the audience gave a rousing ovation with many a curtain call for the composer, director, and performers.  And in that way, the piece was fantastically successful.  It wasn't one of those "oh, that was nice" kind of pieces, but one that made you actually feel something.  Whether or not you liked that feeling was another question, but these kinds of affecting pieces are the ones that have the most staying power.  The classics of today were generally met with some sort of hostility at their premieres, a perfect example being Igor Stravinsky's riot-inducing "Rite of Spring."  Which of course was appropriately programmed to finish the concert.

As I was listening to "Rite," it became clear just how much my mind's ear of the piece has been affected the Philadelphia Orchestra's version from "Fantasia" conducted by Leopold Stokowski.  The Philadelphians have always featured a loud string section, which gave those famous string accents at the beginning of the piece so much impact.  Even in a loud and resonant hall like the Barbican, the BBC's smaller string section couldn't match the Philadelphian's force.  But what they lacked in shear volume, they more than made up for in clarity and groove.  Especially with Robertson on the podium, a master of navigating such rhythmically complex works, the piece had a razor sharp edge and a fleetness that most orchestras even struggle to get in a studio.  And because the string section was not as loud as to what I was accustomed, I was able to hear all of the neat inner wind and brass parts that almost always get lost.

As the piece went on, the orchestra showed that it could rear back and smash the audience's faces with sound when it wanted to, especially when the brass section went full throttle.  After the emphatic final chord,  the audience gave yet another hearty ovation, a testament to both the energy and precision of the orchestra. In an audacious program that spanned centuries and traditions, the BBC showed that they are a chameleon of an orchestra.  At one moment they can be a schmaltzy Romantic philharmonic, and the next, a hip new music ensemble.  The group's commitment to music of all stripes is particularly noteworthy in a time when falling ticket sales are pushing many orchestras toward programming nothing more than radio FM classics and video game scores.  Because they perform challenging and disorienting new music with such verve, it's hard not for the audience to grab onto something cool in the piece.  In the end, it's a win for all involved.  The composers love the BBC because they will play their new and weird stuff.  The players love the BBC because they get to play new and weird stuff that poses interesting musical challenges.  The audience loves it because they may come for the Wagner, but it's the world premiere that they remember.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Know Your London Orchestras! The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta

After profiling the musically-varied London Philharmonic, I bring you stories of not one but two specialist orchestras, in one post!

This Saturday, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (oof, that's a bit of a mouthful, let's stick to OAE for short) and the London Sinfonietta joined together for night of courtly mashup. With their forces united on one stage, their numbers were a staggering... third of what the LPO has on a normal night. Ok, so both groups are small. But hey, bigger isn't always better. The real interest here is the fact that the musical specialties of the respective ensembles are polar opposites. The OAE is London's top early (like pre 1750 or so) music ensemble that doesn't play in a church while the Sinfonietta restricts its repertoire to the past hundred years. One would think that the ornaments of high Baroque and the abrasive harmonies of modernism don't have anything in common. But in their performance, the groups revealed that the very new subconsciously plunders quite a bit from the very old.

The centerpiece of the concert was Stravinsky's suite from the ballet "Pulcinella," based on the beak├ęd stock character of Italian comedia and music traditionally ascribed to Giovanni Pergolesi (though it could have been written by Domenico Gallo, Carlo Ignazio Monza, or the Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenauer). Like a good art show, the OAE contextualized the Stravinsky by pairing it with other music by the possible "Pulcinella" composers. All of this music was filled with the familiar tropes of the galant style - those pesky "Pachabel's Canon" bass lines, the extended dominant pedal points - but there were also a few pleasingly weird moments. In Gallo's Trio Sonata for two violins, 'cello and continuo (fancy-shmanzy for accompanying harpsichord) there was a series of rapid modulations that moved the piece into a surprisingly far-away key. And although the Count Wassenauer was more known for his skills at diplomacy than music, the opening section of one of his "Concerti Armonici" featured rich dissonances among the florid counterpoint.

Many of Stravinsky's pieces are musical provocateurs and while "Pulcinella" certainly fits into this category, it is certainly not for the same reasons as the visceral and riotous (literally) "Rite of Spring." What is shocking about "Pulcinella" is how effortlessly Stravinsky-isms blend with the dated source material. For the most part, he doesn't stray far from the original Pergolessi (or Monza, whatever); there are no double-stacked bitonal chords here. When Stravinsky does throw in one of his trademarks, like a whirring flute texture straight out of Petrouchka or a jazzy trombone gliss, it's appropriately funny. These interruptions draw attention to themselves, yet they don't interrupt the flow of the music. Everything still hangs together, but how?

Jean Baptiste Lully, the reason why conductors today use small sticks
It really comes down to the rhythm, or the groove if you will. In the time of Pergolessi through Haydn or so, the orchestra was only about 30 men strong (as was the case in this performance, except that a majority of the men here were female), and rarely featured a conductor. The French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully from around the same period sought to popularize the technique of beating a staff on the ground to keep the orchestra together. However, Lully's death in a staff-related accident (he struck it through his foot and so contracted blood poisoning) prevented this from catching on. So, in order for the musicians to have any hope of staying together without the help of a beating staff, the music needed to have a strong regular pulse and the musicians needed to feel that pulse in a uniform way, hence the rhythmic verve common to almost all 18th century music. While 19th century composers came to emphasize harmony, gesture and just pure massive sound over tight rhythm, modernists like Stravinsky and Bartok rebelled against the pulseless excess, though usually by interpolating folk music. When Stravinsky began studying galant music to prepare for "Pulcinella," he said it was like looking in a mirror as much as looking to the past. The primacy of pulse is what links Scarlatti and Stravinsky, Rameau and Reich, Locatelli and Louis Andriessen.

So despite their contrasting specialties, the OAE and London Sinfonietta proved quite compatible partners. The music they play demands a strict interpretation of pulse, and so their reliable senses of time led to a wonderfully transparent and energetic performance. Dare I say Gallo grooves?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Know Your London Orchestras! The London Philharmonic

Note: this is the first in a series of undetermined length.

The city of London has an obscene amount of orchestras. While big US cities like Detroit and Philadelphia are having trouble supporting their 1 orchestra, London boasts 5 major orchestras, not to mention the smaller specialty ensembles that play only really new music or really old music, and all those orchestras at the conservatories. So there's the London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, and (to break up the naming pattern) the BBC Symphony.

A few Saturdays ago, I checked out the London Philharmonic, led by their principal conductor, the young and wiry Vladimir Jurowski. Dressed in racing stripe black from hair to foot, Jurowski can look a bit intimidating on the podium, his high cheekbones and piercing eyes reminiscent of one of those Soviet spies from Cold War action films. But his conducting style is both efficient and animated, eliciting a performance that engages the audience both intellectually and viscerally.

Jurowski also has a flair for unpredictable and mind-tickling programs, where the relationship between the pieces isn't obvious at first blush. At this concert, the Philarhmonic began with Haydn's Symphony no. 63 (out of 106 no less!), surprisingly played with period instruments: pedal-less timpani, valve-less horns and trumpets. This is something of anomaly for a romance-sized orchestra like the LPO and like all anomalies had consequences both good and bad. Good: the group's sound was clean and intimate, making the large Royal Festival Hall seem more like Prince Leopold's sitting room. Bad: natural horns are really hard to play. There were many a flubbed noted, and of course, Haydn does love his repeats. This gave the horn players another crack at those notes, but it was particularly disheartening when they'd screw it up the second time around. Luckily, the orchestra overall played with a comfortable and insistent groove. Jurowski at points would stop beating time, trusting his players to sit in the pocket while he shaped the larger phrases.

The second piece, the world premiere of "Flight from Byzantium" by the Italian composer Matteo D'Amico, was just about as sonically different as you can get from Haydn at an orchestra concert. For this piece, the orchestra increased the string section by 50%, tripled its brass, and constructed wall of percussion instruments in the back, not to mention the addition of some middle eastern lute-y and flute-y instruments, a Renaissance vocal quartet, and an amplified narrator. Oof. That's a lot of sound-producing things in one place.

D'Amico's piece was based on texts by the Nobel Prize-winning author Joseph Brodsky, including an article about the Roman emperor Constantine, autocracy, and his founding of Constantinople, declaimed by the narrator, and a selection of his Nativity poems, sung by the Hilliard Ensemble in their ethereal Renaissance tone.

The piece was filled with conflict. The rational tone of the narrator versus the contemplative spirituality of the singers. The exotic sounds of middle eastern instruments versus the western orchestra. All of this was to underscore the conflicts of east and west, Christian and Muslim, and autocracy and democracy that were dealt with in the texts. While D'Amico filled his work with bold harmonies, rich string pads, and sprightly percussion textures, the whole thing felt a bit like the score to a picture-less documentary. The music certainly was effective at setting moods, but not as good at getting inside your head, drawing attention to itself. He let the texts tell the story, which is all well and good if you're composing a soundtrack, but maybe not so good if the piece stands alone in a concert hall.

After the interval, the Hilliard Ensemble returned for a little solo set featuring the 15th century music of Guillaume Dufay, including a piece that also had Constantinople in the title. Hmm, looks like a pattern. Or maybe it's just that since the LPO hired the Hilliard Ensemble, it would let them do their Renaissance thing for a bit. The austere harmonies and tight canons in the music were very revealing, not of the singer's intonation but rather of the dryness of the hall. This kind of music was written by guys who had only heard music inside stone Gothic cathedrals and much of its beauty is stripped when the notes decay too quickly, as was the case in this dry hall.

But the orchestra was back on before too long to play Bela Bartok's ballet, "The Miraculous Mandarin," with full chorus but sans dancers (the stage isn't that big). The ballet tells the story of a miraculous Chinese man that pursues a winsome young woman, is beat up and killed by a group of goons, recovers and continues to pursue said woman, and then finally dies when the woman embraces him. A little absurd, yes, but the score brims with energy, shows off the orchestra's virtuosity (crazy, crazy piano part), and even manages to swing a bit (I was head bobbing). Jurowski deftly handled the many moving parts without sapping the forward motion in a performance that confirmed Bartok's status as a total baller.

As I left the hall (and passed by an old lady congratulating Mr. D'Amico, who I didn't realize was sitting just a couple of rows away), I still was a bit confused at the rationale of the program. I definitely loved the fact that the four pieces were from four different centuries and there wasn't one overplayed romantic work in there. Someone walking out seemed to think it was about storytelling, but to me the Dufay didn't seem to have much a story (but what do I know, I don't know Latin, just going off a hunch). I ended up having to do a bit of snooping after getting back and found out that the Haydn symphony was really just a collection of incidental music for a play called "La Roxalane," about one of the wives of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent.

Aye, there's the rub. It's all about the West's fear of the East. Certainly, that was an obvious theme in the D'Amico premiere, but more subtle in the Haydn - there weren't the cymbals and triangle that scream "I'm making Turkish music!" But certainly, a play in Vienna (where Haydn worked) about the Turks (who not that long before laid siege to the city) would play on the audience's fear of the eastern exotic. Dufay - there's the Constantinople connection, I think I get it, enough at least. And though the Bartok refers to a place farther east than the others, it is about fear of the other, a lack of understanding. The woman continually rebuffs the Mandarin, who comes off as a bit creepy, and the goons would rather beat him up than ask questions.

So although the London Philharmonic is not known as the top London orchestra, it certainly puts on both a thoughtful and varied program, one that can be enjoyed by the elderly patron, the over-analytical student, and the performer alike.