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


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.