Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More of my Music

If you enjoyed "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child," check out my first orchestral piece, "Back Brook."

It's really slow and full of gooey textures. The title comes from this little creek behind my elementary school whose actual name was Back Brook. Because, you know, it was out back. Behind the school. I have fond memories looking for bugs and plants and stuff there. It held a sort of mystical quality for me because even though it was very shallow, you were never allowed to cross it. I have yet to travel to the far bank, though I'm pretty sure it just leads to the soccer fields by the middle school.

Definitely leave comments on the piece below!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Music at the Edge of Intellect - Eldar Djangirov and Vijay Iyer at the McCarter Theater

I just strolled back up campus from the aforementioned show in a pretty good mood. Vijay and his trio (with Tyshawn Sorey sitting in for Marcus Gilmore on drums) had a very satisfying set. It was full of rhythmic playfulness, the kind where you bob your head to some undiscernible underlying pulse. Moods swung from meditative and brooding to blissfully cathartic. Iyer, Sorey and bassist Stephen Crumb are on another plane musically. They privileged the audience with a brief look into their rhythmic wonderland.

So, um, what did I think of Eldar's opening set?

How can I put this lightly...

The old folks behind me seemed to enjoy it a lot :)

I on the other hand had a bit more difficulty. As a preface for what is to come, I was enamored by Eldar last time I saw him. I was sixteen going on seventeen. Naive, timid, and scared was I, though with budding jazz chops. He just played so fast and in 7 and I just thought, "Wow he's only 19! This is so nuts." I of course sheepishly got an autograph afterward and awkwardly commented on his stuff in 7.

The first instinct that a lot of my friends and I have about Eldar is that his virtuosity is just a novelty. It's impressive, a good bit of showmanship, and the audience usually responds as such (tonight was no exception). But even as a stingy, artsy music snob, I usually react well to good showmanship. Jazz has been filled with expert showmen like Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, and Papa Jo Jones (please comment with anyone I left out), dating all the way back to Louis Armstrong. The inimitable Roots (they're a jazz band in my book) continue this tradition every night on Jimmy Fallon's show. But tonight, I didn't get any feeling of showmanship from Eldar. His virtuosity is eerily unselfconscious. I feel that what he played tonight is his own honest music. Yet after all of his hyperactivity and machine gun phrasing, I was left cold, dozing off in the heat of battle.

As I walked back tonight, I thought about the reason for this disconnect. I'm not usually the one coming out of a concert thinking I just didn't get it. This was a really weird feeling. After a good ponder, I feel Eldar's music is something like jazz with Asperger's (ok, I did think of jaszperger's, but that seems like unfair cheap shot). The virtuosity and ease of his playing is savant-like, seemingly beyond what any other human can do. However, the music lacks the nuance that makes emotional expression and recognition possible. It all comes off as a rote exercise in musical recall.

Eldar's so-cerebral-it's-scary music is an interesting foil for Vijay and his trio. Iyer is potentially the sharpest guy in the jazz world, or at least the most over-educated (BA in physics and math from Yale, MS/PhD from Cal Berkeley. Really says a lot coming from me huh. Ba dum crash.) Annnnnnyway...

So what's going through Mr. Iyer's big brain? Does it really matter?
I'm just saying that one would think Iyer's music would be the one that suffers from intellectual incomprehensibility, rather than Eldar's. His music can be pretty heady, like the third tune from tonight's show, called "Cardio." It starts off in this really fast 3+4 pattern that feels like it's in 2 but with beats of slightly different lengths. Then they layer groups of 5 and 6 beats on top of it. Sounds like a rhythmic morass, doesn't it?

The big guy with the little drum set
But to be totally honest, I wasn't really paying attention to all that rhythmic stuff. I only figured it out after talking to the trio in the lobby. In the moment, I was dialed into the slippery groove. The piece built up gradually, gathering tension as notes flew by in ever-denser clusters. And suddenly, Tyshawn burst the musical knot open with a thundering cymbal crash followed by a riveting drum solo. The piece's complex mathematical time signature wasn't what made it engaging. Instead I like to think the performance was great despite the complex clave. Vijay, Stephen, and Tyshawn are so secure in their rhythmic feel that they can play the piece with total commitment, nuance, and flexibility. In the end, "Cardio" and the rest of the trio's set brimmed with vital communicative power. Call it passion, call it soul, call it whatever you want. You just know it when you hear it and when you hear it, it feels pretty good.

Friday, May 6, 2011

New Jazz for You - Gerald Clayton, Adam Cruz, and Jeremy Udden's Plainville

Gerald Clayton - Bond: The Paris Sessions (Decca)

Clayton is a new breed of young lion. As the youngest in a prominent jazz family (his father John is a bassist and bandleader and uncle Jeff plays reeds), Gerald has prodigious chops and an intimate relationship with jazz tradition. But he's no brooding neoclassicist. If his wild dreds and long tie-with-jeans getup don't make that clear, his music certainly will.

Lookin' sharp, Gerald
Clayton's new album "Bond: The Paris Sessions" opens with the cliched standard "If I Were a Bell." It's a move that would seemingly send younger listeners packing, but Clayton pulls it off with a slick little groove that allows him to phrase the melody in unexpected ways. Bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown relish the space in between Clayton's chords, bathing the tune in quiet busyness. In just under 8 minutes, the trio presents a fresh and urbane view of jazz that updates oft-used methods with a distinct rhythmic crackle.

With this emphasis on rhythm, it makes sense that the trio has a thing for vamps. Almost every tune has one, allowing the band to show off its immense vocabulary of rhythmic tricks. All three musicians are under 30, but they've been playing with each other in various groups since their teenage years. They know each others' tendencies so well that they seem to communicate in a tri-composed monologue rather than a friendly conversation. While the album's emotional gamut runs only from pensive to cool, there's a lot to enjoy - Sanders' effortless counter-lines, Brown's snappy snare accents, Clayton's deft touch. Gerald Clayton's city-slick jazz has a vital pulse and plenty of avenues left to explore.

"Bond: The Paris Sessions" comes out on May 10

Adam Cruz - Milestone (Sunnyside) 

Gerald Clayton has now produced two full-length albums before his 27th birthday. On the other hand, drummer Adam Cruz has taken quite a bit longer just to get through one (he's just over 40). That doesn't mean Cruz isn't one of the busiest musicians in New York. Cruz is one in-demand sideman, playing with the jazz-famous likes of saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Danilo Perez, and the almost-actually-famous Chick Corea. Cruz can lay down swing, funk, and Latin grooves (plus any combination thereof) with equal aplomb, but has yet to step out as a bandleader and composer until now.

Cruz doing what he does best - just layin' it down
The results on his appropriately-named debut "Milestone" are mixed at best. It's not because of a lack of musicianship - Cruz has assembled a crack band including Potter, MacArthur-winning saxophonist Miguel Zenon, versatile guitar ace Steve Cardenas, and Cruz's longtime rhythmic foil Ben Street on bass. The performances are all solid, but lack a certain spark. It has all the hallmarks of the past decade's mainstream jazz - driving Latin-ish vamps, knotty melodies, complex non-functional harmonies, lots of room for the soloists to blow.

Although Cruz's chameleon-like flexibility and unyielding tastefulness make him an ideal supporting actor, they're a bit of a liability now that he's taken a leading role. He lets his partners be themselves, instead of challenging them with new musical contexts in which to improvise. Though many of the tunes have multiple sections, few have an engaging and dramatic arc. There certainly are some good moments on the album, like the sax battle on "Gadfly" and Cardenas' tropical pluckings on "Outer Reaches." Unfortunately, the compositions can't sustain the momentum of these moments, yielding an album that sounds surprisingly typical.

"Milestone" was released on April 12

Jeremy Udden's Plainville - If the Past Seems So Bright (Sunnyside)

If Brooklyn has been too-oft described as a musical Eden with diverse genres sharing the same lush pastures, its only because the myth is too often confirmed by yet another great genre-blowing album from a Brooklynite. This month's album is "If the Past Seems So Bright" from the saxophonist Jeremy Udden and his band Plainville.

Udden and the gang in action
No matter who your favorite hipster band is, you'll find something to like here. Wilco fans will fawn over the layered electronic pianos and distorted guitars. Disaffected Sufjanistas will go giddy at the sound of gently arpeggiated banjos. Fleet Foxes fanatics will float along with the gently harmonized folk melodies.

But "If the Past..." isn't great because of its similarities to good 'n folksy indie rock. It's more like it's great despite those similarities. It's not like, you know... hmm... some... exhilarating pastiche. Instead, Plainville has a strong musical identity that melds the disparate personalities of its members into a sturdy whole. Udden has a pleasing, woody tone on his various saxophones, imbuing the simple melodies with vocal honesty. Guitarist/banjoist Brandon Seabrook and keyboardist Pete Rende create a rustic and immersive soundscape, using a color palette of diverse instruments and effects pedals. And all along, bassist Elvind Opsvik and drummer R.J. Miller ground the music in a time feel that breathes with perfectly-placed imperfections.

The album is bracingly analog, a blurred photograph, a letter from your ancestor, so real you can taste it. The stark opening drum beats transport you to a world of deep memory, and you remain there long after the last guitar fades.

"If the Past Seems So Bright" comes out on May 31.