New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: December, 2020

Elegant, Rustic, Imaginatively Reinvented Sounds For Lute and Viola Da Gamba

There’s no small irony in that lutenist Ronn McFarlane and viola da gamba player Carolyn Surrick’s new album Fermi’s Paradox – streaming at Spotify – may be closer to the original source of its centuries-old British folk music than anything released by generations of guitar fingerpickers. Many times throughout history, the most ancient becomes avant garde again and this charmingly rustic, nimbly performed mix of classic folk, baroque and original themes is a vivid example.

The duo open with the title cut, an original with echoes of a popular early 60s Bob Dylan acoustic hit, the lute’s plucky, banjo-like tone contrasting with the dark bass washes of the gamba. The two give She Moves Through the Fair an aptly ethereal spaciousness before picking up with a jaunty clip-clop beat.

The album’s third track is a mashup of an ancient Swedish processional of sorts, a spare, elegant Surrick waltz and a briskly strolling Marin Marais work, a contrast the musicians revisit later in the album with another Swedish traditional piece and a 18th century Robert Robinson miniature. Their take of Blackwaterside has unusual syncopation and lively ornamentation, while Dave Shepherd’s The Rose of Raby is much more straightforward, with a clog-dance beat and stark resonance from the gamba.

Daniel’s Chaconne, a solo lute piece by McFarlane, has somber harmonies just off-center enough to make the song’s origin in time a mystery. Trinity Grove, another McFarlane number, is more warmly lilting, yet could easily pass for a traditional tune.

The two musicians parse the baroque repertoire for a pensive Telemann triptych and then a gently elegaic version of John Dowland’s Adew For Master Oliver Cromwell. A Bach transcription of a brief, stately Hans Leo Hassler work offers the duo a launching pad for striking textural contrasts.

Their bluegrassy version of the Allman Brothers’ Little Martha is a hoot. They close the record with a stark Turlough O’Carolan diptych and then a wry blend of Bach and Ave Maria.

The only track which really shouldn’t be on this album – or any other album – is a famous hymn written by a mass murderer. It never ceases to be amazing that the slave trader who wrote it – and killed hundreds, maybe thousands of kidnapped Africans – continues to enjoy the posthumous grace of having his song performed. This blog says enough is enough.

Poignant, Tersely Crystallized Songs Without Words From Antonija Pacek

Pianist Antonija Pacek plays vivid, often haunting songs without words. Her new album Forever – streaming at Spotify – draws on the highest of the High Romantic, but tersely and poignantly. Her righthand typically carries a vocal line, the left either spare chords, arpeggios or a bassline. If you were the pianist in an artsy rock band, this album is what you would give the rest of the crew to learn. Any third-year student can play every track here. There are no solos, no dynamic shifts, just melody – and an invitation to write lyrics. One can only wonder what a great songwriter like Karla Rose or Hannah Fairchild could do with this. Every piano teacher should own this album: it’s the best kind of example of this type of music.

A cynic would say that there are a million wannabe youtube stars with sad rainy day solo piano or synthesizer playlists that rip off every classical composer from Bach to Dvorak. But this is a cut above. The first track, Sofia is an absolutely shattering, toweringly angst-fueled requiem without words, Chopin through the prism of 20th century Slavic balladry.

Pacek follows that with If Only Time Allowed, neoromantic righthand over Lynchian lefthand. Gone Young is another requiem, a portrait of someone obviously full of life cut down unexpectedly, and too soon

The title track is a saloony Tom Waits-ish theme. Lullaby has playful Asian allusions, while Light is a neoromantic analogue to the Church’s classic, haunted Bel Air. If Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen had been a neoromantic guy, he would have written Almost Goodbye.

Before the Rain is catchy, minor-key, almost amusingly insistent and youtube-friendly: it could be Yann Tiersen. In Deep Red, Pacek makes a conflicted piano ballad out of Debussy and a little blues. 

Taken on face value, Wanna Dance has to be the most morose pickup line ever written: as sad waltzes go, this is killer. Pacek finally has fun shifting the melody to the lefthand in the stadium-rock theme What’s Waiting for Me. The album’s “secret” track, Before the Storm follows a familiar descending progression, a castle dark, a fortress strong….a melody secret?

Angela Hewitt Playfully and Insightfully Resurrects Beethoven Piano Obscurities

“The fourth pedal on my Fazioli, which raises the action and cuts the hammer strike by half, helped enormously here,” pianist Angela Hewitt explains in the liner notes to her new Beethoven Variations album, which hasn’t the web yet. She’s discussing her approach to the faster, more staccato passages in a relatively early work, the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor.

And yet, she brings a heartfelt neoromantic tinge to the quieter passages. As she explains in the album’s very detailed booklet, Beethoven basically wrote this and abandoned it. Still, it’s a colorful and not always predictable piece of music, and it gives Hewitt, who’s revered for playing Bach on the piano, a chance to explore dynamics that are less present in baroque music. As usual, she takes a painterly approach to this along with some other lesser-known Beethoven works.

The 6 Variations on an Original Theme in F Major are more relaxed and playful, the subtle humor echoing Haydn, whose shadow the composer had not yet escaped. Hewitt has a particularly good, emphatic time with the stern proto-Chopin march midway through, a far cry from the casual feel of most of what surrounds it.

Hewitt takes a very straightforward, calmly dancing, occasionally puckish approach early in the 15 Variations and a Fugue, best known as Beethoven’s early study for the Finale of his Eroica Symphony. That hardly signals how regal this music will eventually grow and how much more joyously pouncing her attack becomes.

The rest of the material here is much more obscure, and understandably so. There are two series of variations on themes by Guiseppe Paisiello, a popular late 18th century opera composer. The first is a lightweight love song, the second a folksy little tune. Neither sounds anything like Beethoven.

The final two cuts remind how little life has changed for musicians over the past couple of centuries: sometimes you have to take whatever work is available. In this case, Beethoven sat down at the piano in 1803 and fulfilled the terms of a commission from a fan in Scotland who’d asked him to come up with variations on God Save the King and Rule Brittania. Spin this at your New Years Eve party and see if anybody in the crowd gets the joke.

Warmly Drifting, Epically Atmospheric Instrumentals From Numun

Atmospheric instrumentalists Numun comprises members of cinematic, pastoral noir band Suss as well as New York’s most popular Balinese bell orchestra, Gamelan Dharma Swara.  Multi-instrumentalists Joel Mellin and Bob Holmes’ new album Voyage au Soleil – streaming at Bandcamp – is pretty much what you would expect from those influences: vast, slowly hovering tableaux with the occasional Asian tinge.

The opening track, Tranceport rises from slowly shifting atmospherics and the occsional boom of what could be a gong, to a swaying, gorgeously lush acoustic guitar groove spiced with cumbus lute and airy, tremoloing keys. First Steps starts with wry, robotic keys over a trip-hop beat, percolating organ and menacing reverb guitar, then rises to a darker but equally sweeping crescendo.

With its keening, tinkling synth lines and surreal spoken-word vocals half-buried in the mix, Tranquility Base is a hyperactive stab at a nocturne: the slow acoustic guitar-based sway returns, more loopy this time. The alarm motif that kicks off Mission Loss could have been faded down more mercifully for the listener, as a thicket of short pulses and then the warmly predictable acoustic guitar vmp takes over.

Expanse is the one track that begins with guitars and then drifts into an echoey vortex with dubwise bass anchoring starry keys: it’s the album’s most interesting and psychedelic number. The final cut is the title track, which with the cumbus could be an Asian-tinged outtake of an interlude from Pink Floyd’s Animals. Cue this up and set the controls for the heart of the…

Prime Dave Brubeck Outtakes Rescued From the Archives

What jumps out at you immediately on the new Dave Brubeck Time OutTakes album is how incredibly fresh these songs were when the iconic pianist brought them into the studio in 1959. There are seven tracks here plus a bonus couple of minutes of self-effacing studio banter, streaming at Spotify. Most everything here other than the banter would appear in sometimes radically different form on the Time Out album, one of the ten most popular jazz records of all time. For anyone who might not rank Brubeck among the alltime great improvisers, he puts that theory to rest here. This isn’t just ephemera for diehards: it’s a shock this material hasn’t seen the light of day until now.

The first number is a practically nine-minute take of Blue Rondo A La Turk, Brubeck matching the go-for-broke rhythmic intensity of the final version, although he chills out almost to the point of getting lost when it comes to his solo – which explains why this didn’t make the cut. Still, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond really nails the dry martini sound he so famously emulated.

Beginning with Brubeck’s long neoromantic intro, a similarly expansive version of Strange Meadowlark captures both the bandleader and also Desmond at their lyrical best. Why didn’t this take end up on the record? We’ll never know.

Why the version of Cathy’s Waltz here also didn’t end up on the original album is another mystery: maybe a single, minor smudge of one of Brubeck’s high notes during the last verse in this otherwise jaunty, spot-on performance?

Hearing drummer Joe Morello subtly edge his way into the rhythm of Take Five on his ride cymbal is a trip: it’s easy to forget how much of the bestselling jazz single of all time is a drum solo. Desmond’s solo is a lot punchier here, as Morello’s turns out to be as well. One suspects he hams it up because he knows the song still isn’t ready.

Three to Get Ready is more wryly playful and slower than the final take, bassist Eugene Wright getting more time in the spotlight and having fun with it. The pianist is in lighter-fingered form, by contrast with Morello, in I’m in a Dancing Mood, another perfectly serviceable take. The last number is a “Watusi Jam,” referencing one of the innumerable dance memes of the late 1950s. Desmond sits out this deviously jungly Morello vehicle. Even when Brubeck and his legendary quartet aren’t at the peak of their form here – and 99% of the time they are – the fun they’re having is irresistible. And it’s no less insightful to witness how they went about making history with it.

Ferocious Dreampop and Metal From Imha Tarikat

Imha Tarikat play a venomously, envelopingly melodic, reverb-drenched blend of black metal, punk and dark dreampop. Frontman/guitarist Kerem Yilmaz bellows in German; he doesn’t go for the pigsnorting cliches so many other bands fall into. If immersive, full-throttle minor-key guitar is your thing, this is your jam. The group’s new album Sternenberster is streaming at Bandcamp.

The first track is titled Ende, appropriately enough. It sets the stage for the rest of the record: a wall of guitars, machete tremolo-picking, machinegunning rhythms and a dreampop influence that reflects the gritty, assaultive swirl of My Bloody Valentine instead of the icy delicacy of Lush.

The stampede, the punch of the bass and the tremolo-picking get even faster in Sturm der Erlösung. By saying they slow things down a little for the punk anthem Kreuzpunkt der Schicksale says a lot about how hard this crew usually hit – and they take it doublespeed at the end.

Wailing up and down on the guitar strings relentlessly – Yilmaz must melt a lot of picks – they segue into Brand am Firmament, a vortex of dreampop and black metal with a southwestern gothic theme buried in the mix. The New Order outro is a trip.

They shift between MVB maelstrom and pretty straight-ahead punk in Klimax Downpour, with a rare, wailing guitar solo. The wall of tremolo-picking gets denser and more hypnotic in Aufstieg, built around a catchy ascending riff. They go back to thrash-punk stomp and torrential atmosphere in the album’s title track and close the record with a brisk, arpeggio-fueled classical piano theme.

Dave Brubeck’s Lullabies: Marginalia or Major Revelations?

Conventional wisdom is that music written for family and kids is ephemera. In reality, the reverse is often true: take the Bach Klavierubung, or Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, for example. Freed from the demands of concert audiences or record labels, a composer can follow his or her own muse. Where does the new Dave Brubeck Lullabies solo piano compilation – streaming at Spotify – fall between those two extremes? Somewhere in between.

Brubeck famously broke up his legendary quartet so he could spend more time at home with his kids, so it’s no surprise that he would record this material, albeit decades later for his grandchildren. It’s his last studio recording, but his chops are undiminished. He bookends the album with appropriately tender, subtly ornamented takes of the famous Brahms lullaby. The tracks everybody wants to hear, obviously, are the originals. Going to Sleep is catchy, on the sparse side and strongly echoes Debussy. Lullaby For Iola, written for his beloved wife, is a similarly spacious pavane.

Softly, William, Softly is arguably the best and most poignantly folksy of the bunch. Brubeck deviously reharmonizes Brahms for Briar Bush. The last one, a solo take of Koto Song wasn’t included with the digital promo for the record.

Gershwin’s Summertime fits in perfectly here, in a casual, lyrical way; brooding bluesiness aside, it’s a lullaby, after all. Brubeck works a low-key, subtly ragtime-inflected sway in When It’s Sleepy Time Down South and makes stately art-song out of There’s No Place Like Home.

He indulges in a bit of unexpected dynamics in an otherwise tender take of A Dream Is a Wish Is Your Heart Makes and finds spare resilience as well as classical heroism in All Through the Night. And he goes deeper into lustrous neoromantic mode with the simply titled Sleep.

He also makes lullabies out of a famous Irish ballad and that number from the Wizard of Oz that needs to be put to sleep forever. This isn’t exactly Brubeck at his most irrepressibly inventive, but it’s unbeatable as functional music. Some of the luckiest members of the generation just being born may someday have fond memories of this completely different side of a jazz icon.

An Uneasy Treat From Noa Fort and Vinnie Sperrazza

The new short album Small Cities by multi-keyboardist Noa Fort and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza – streaming at Bandcamp – is a real change of pace for both of them because it’s so minimalist. The centerpiece, Only Happy When I’m Haunted, is the real showstopper here. Bookended by a wry drum solo, and a final, playful vocal-and drum-tune, it features Fort on what sounds like an old Yamaha organ instead of her usual piano. And it’s creepy, with an almost-unhinged tension similar to Serena Jost’s improvisational work in a completely diffferent context.

All proceeds of purchases go to Planned Parenthood.

A Haunting, Hard-Hitting New Protest Jazz Suite From Trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius

As grassroots resistance against the lockdown gains momentum and more parts of the country declare themselves free territory, we will soon have unprecedented opportunities to remake our world. As lockdowner governors are voted out and driven from office, we will have plenty of chances to give force of law to the hope kindled by the pro-freedom, Black Lives Matter and Metoo movements. On his powerful, purposeful, evocative new concert recording Live From the Prison Nation – streaming at Bandcamp – trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius addresses the ongoing need to put an end to the New Jim Crow.

This is a suite in the Ellington tradition, with stern echoes of Mingus and also the shadowy intensity of Darcy James Argue at his most concise. The opening track, Expectations begins with a troubled, suspenseful pedalpoint behind narrator’s Angela Davis’ commentary on what to do with prisons: she wants to abolish them. From there the group rise to an anthemic descending riff and then allusive variations, the bandleader shifting from somber to triumphantly fluttering, echoed by tenor saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali. Pianist Daniel Abraham Jr. and bassist Benjamin Jephta maintain a low-key, mysterious presence as drummer Brian Richburg subtly raises the ante. The sudden shift to Abraham’s moody solo as the horns drop out is stunning.

Likewise, the group waft and simmer through The Principle, a haunting, allusively modal tone poem of sorts, the bandleader’s trumpet awash in reverb and digital sustain until he finally cuts loose. There’s a fade up and then out of Yesseh’s Interlude, a brief, thoughtful Furaha-Ali solo.

“It is only movements that bring change…movements work,” author and wrongfully convicted death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal reminds in his voiceover for Mumia’s Guidance, a similarly brooding backdrop with soulful, low-key trumpet and sax solos. “We live in an era where the very notion of a movement sems strange or oddly out of time. That is so because over the last half century, the state has worked hard to disappear the memory of the movements of the 60s or for that matter any other time in us history. It has utilized the the media, the academy and public schools to present a false and misleading historical narrative to confuse people so they cannot see how movements grow, interact, swell and finally present such position unto the public square..”

Demetrius closes the album with his most epic composition, the anti-police brutality tableau F.O.O. Shit. The group rises ominously over sounds of community-building in the streets; Jephta’s pensive four-chord electric bass riffs anchor and then launch a tightly clustering, expansive sax solo. A sinister tritone flourish from Abraham signals that there’s plenty of trouble ahead and work to do as Jephta booms in the distance, Demetrius shifting from grim, Middle Eastern-tinged allusions to spacious, reflective, Wadada Leo Smith-like motives. The slow upward drive backs away just short of a conflagration

This isn’t just one of the best and most relevant jazz albums of the year; it’s one of the best and most relevant albums of the past several years, period. And if Demetrius hadn’t had the presence of mind to record this show, today he and the band would have to make the long trip to Florida, or South Dakota, or Council, Idaho to make the album. That’s how twisted this country became in 2020.

Violinist Alexandra Conunova Releases a Fiery, Individualistic Take on an Iconic Suite as Solace for Troubled Times

During the early days of the lockdown, violinist Alexandra Conunova played parts of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from her balcony for anyone within earshot.

Is that heroism, or what?

Here in the United States, most of the country remains unable to legally assemble to play music like this for any substantial audience. Fortuitously, inspired by the grateful response of her neighbors, Conunova was able to assemble a bunch of friends and recorded the iconic suite which has (bad pun alert) year-round appeal but here in New York has always been a staple of holiday concerts. If you know of any clandestine performances of the Four Seasons this month, go – otherwise you can hear this electrifying and often stunningly dynamic performance at youtube.

The ensemble open with Autumn and follow with Winter, Spring and Summer, rather than beginning with Spring as some groups do. Overall, this recording is on the brisk, even harried side, and when it’s not, it’s especially dreamy. Moments of starkness – like the crackling staccato in the second movement of Spring – can be genuinely breathtaking, perhaps a reflection on the current state of the world. Yet otherwise, the adagio in Autumn is hauntingly luxuriant, with remarkable contrast between strings and harpsichord. And the almost jolly stroll the group give the middle movement of Winter comes as a shock in a lot of ways: even so, this unorthodox interpretation makes thematic sense.

Conunova fires off her cadenzas with a quicksilver relish, but also an edge that’s reinforced by the headlong charge the rest of the group make in many of the faster parts: the intro and outro to Winter have as much savagery as anyone could possibly want. Likewise, the way the group explode into action midway through the opening movement of Summer. A practically defiant triumph for an inspired, rotating crew including violinists François Sochard, Dmitry Serebrennikov, Anna Vasilyeva, Marc Daniel van Biemen, Filipe Johnson and Katia Trabe; violists Blythe Teh Engstroem and Izabel Markova; cellists Anastasia Kobekina and Eric Zorgniotti; bassist Ivy Wong and harpsichordist Paolo Corsi.