New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

Revisiting a Relentlessly Bleak, Minimalist Film Score

The annual monthlong Halloween celebration here may be past the midpoint, but there’s still plenty of dark music left in the pipeline through the end of the month. Today we celebrate with the immersive score to the 2019 Rashid Johnson film Native Son, by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (of S U R V I V E), streaming at Spotify.

This is a very atmospheric, minimalist series of electronic soundscapes. A brief series of doppler-like phrases sets the stage. There’s more ominous texture and contrasts – rumbling lows, hypnotically shifting sheets of grey noise – than there is discernible melody. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t drama: those moments of agitation spring up in a split second, only to fade down into the murk.

Much of this evokes echoey industrial drainpipes, waves of heat over asphalt, and cold mechanical drones which build to turmoil. In contrast, there are interludes with simple, slowly rising and falling synthesized strings, and vintage 80s synth patches. Somewhere a Terminator is running low on juice.

The film itself is based on the iconic Richard Wright novel: if the score is any indication, the cinematic version of the story of Bigger Thomas is even more relentlessly bleak than the book.

Smart, Politically Woke Party Music From Los Mocosos

Old ska bands never die: the party never stops. Look at the Skatalites. They invented ska, and even as they lost some members along the way – starting early, with Don Drummond – they had a fifty-year career. Los Mocosos have a long, long way to go before they get that far, but don’t rule them out. And they play a lot more than just ska. Their latest album, wryly titled All Grown Up, is streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the record, the band switch between English and Spanish, typically in the same song. They start out with the party songs and get more political as the album goes along. They open with the title cut, a catchy minor-key mashup of rocksteady, salsa and ska. “‘I’m just here to play my tunes, get your body to move and get all the ladies,” frontman Juan Ele sings in a resonant croon with a strong resemblance to Steel Pulse’s David Hinds.

Speaking of classic reggae, the second track, United We Stand, immediately brings to mind Bob Marley’s Exodus, right down to Steve Carter’s slinky organ, Happy Sanchez’s tightly clustering bassline and the punchy brass section. It’s a reminder that we’re one big nation of immigrants who need to stick together and fight, or else we’re all in trouble.

Mirala is a psychedelic cumbia party tune with balmy horns and a little reggaeton. Ready for the Weekend shifts back and forth between a turbocharged oldschool disco groove and a ska bounce. Then the band hit a simmering roots reggae pulse and make their way into a Sympathy For the Devil-style sway in Caminos, an anthem for hardworking strugglers everywhere.

They slow things down even further with the twinkling retro rock ballad Memories of Love and then give themselves a shout-out with the salsa-ska theme Viva Los Mocosos. Ele contemplates how an immigrant fits into a neighborhood and its history with It’s All Good, a brooding mashup of lowrider funk, oldschool soul and hip-hop.

The album’s most defiant track is Libre, a big, soaring rocksteady anthem. They close with Brothers & Sisters, a call for unity. It’s been a brutal year, and it’s been a long time since there’s been any party music on this page. Feels good to know bands like this still exist.