New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Joy and Desolation From the Tesla Quartet

The Tesla Quartet have been around for more than a decade. In keeping with this century’s zeitgeist, artists release albums when they’re ready, not when some accountant says they have to in order to fulfill some sleazy record label contract. So their debut album, Joy and Desolation – streaming at their music page – was worth the wait. It’s a mix of very familiar repertoire and more adventurous material.

They open the record with a classical radio staple: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, with soloist Alexander Fiterstein. Let’s not kid ourselves: pensive third movement notwithstanding, this is wine-hour music for the thieving dukes and abbots and the gentry of suburban Vienna, such as suburbs existed in 1789. The more you drink, the easier it is to get lost in its lustre and exchanges of subdued revelry. But it’s gorgeously executed. Fiterstein maintains a stunning, wind-tunnel clarity, throughout both extended passages and bubbly staccato phrases. Violinists Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie, and violist Edwin Kaplan provide echoes and a strong backdrop, and cellist Serafim Smigelskiy switches seamlessly between resonant ballast and serving as bass player.

Next on the bill are Gerald Finzi’s innocuously neo-baroque Five Bagatelles. A drifting legato quickly transforms to leaps and bounds in the opening Prelude. Fiterstein’s moody vistas echo in Smigelskiy’s undercurrent in the nocturnal Romance, followed by a nostalgically snowy, waltzing carol of a third movement. The fourth relies more on stark pastoral textures from the strings; the concluding fughetta, on bubbly exchanges. Aaron Copland comes to mind often here: this music is facile, derivative – and seamlessly played.

So much for joy. There’s a slow, fugal contrast between icy, troubled, tectonically shifting close-harmonied strings, built around a creepy chromatic riff and the clarinet’s looming textures, in John Corigliano‘s Soliloquy. The windswept, ghostly outro is absolutely gorgeous. The group wind up the album with Carolina Heredia’s Ius in Bello, its haunted flickers and flutters behind plaintive clarinet up to a fire dance within the first couple of minutes. Demands on the ensemble increase from sudden shocked cadenzas to chilling mictrotonal interludes: what a piece de resistance to choose as a coda.

Revisiting a Lavish, Exquisitely Textured, Symphonic Big Band Album by Brian Landrus

Listening to one Brian Landrus album makes you want to hear more. It’s impossible to think of another baritone saxophonist from this era , or for that matter any other, who’s a more colorful composer. Landrus’ masterpiece so far is his titanic Generations big band album, which hit the web about four years ago and is streaming at Spotify. A grand total of 25 players go deep into its lavish, meticulously layered, completely outside-the-box charts .

It opens with The Jeru Concerto, equally inspired by the patron saint of baritone sax big band composition, Gerry Mulligan, as well as Landrus’ young son. Right off the bat, the band hit a cantering rhythm with distant echoes of hip-hop, but also symphonic lustre, the bandleader entering suavely over starry orchestration. He ripples and clusters and eventually leads the group to a catchy, soul-infused theme that could be Earth Wind and Fire at their most symphonic and organic.

A tightly spiraling solo baritone interlude introduces the second segment on the wings of the string section, Landrus’ soulful curlicues and spacious phrasing mingling with the increasingly ambered atmosphere and an unexpected, cleverly shifting pulse. The third movement calms again: watch lights fade from every room, until a more-or-less steady sway resumes. The textures, with harpist Brandee Younger and vibraphonist Joe Locke peeking up as bustling counterpoint develops throughout the group, are exquisite.

The conclusion begins with an altered latin groove, the bandleader shifting toward a more wary theme, neatly echoed in places by the orchestra, ornate yet incredibly purposeful. Landrus moves between a balmy ballad and anxious full-ensemble syncopation, cleverly intertwining the themes up to a casually triumphant final baritone solo.

Orchids, a surreal reggae tune, opens with a starry duet between Younger and Locke and rises to a big sax-fueled peak. Arise is even more playfully surreal, a haphazardly optimistic mashup of Kool and the Gang and Gershwin at his most orchestrally blustery. The Warrior has a Holst-like expanse underpinned by a subtle forward drive from the bass (that’s either Jay Anderson or Lonnie Plaxico) as well as incisive trumpet and violin solos and a triumphant march out.

Arrow in the Night is a comfortably nocturnal prelude with a dark undercurrent: things are not always as they seem. With its persistent, top-to-bottom light/dark contrasts, Human Nature comes across as a busier yet vampier take on classic Gil Evans.

Ruby, dedicated to Landrus’ daughter, has as much gentle playfulness as balminess, with puckish accents, a lyrical baritone solo and an undulating rhythm: this kid is fun, but she’s got a plan and she sticks to it. The ensemble close with Every Time I Dream, a catchy, dancingly orchestrated hip-hop theme akin to a more lavish take on Yaasin Bey’s adventures in new classical music, flurrying trumpet pulling the orchestra out of a momentary reverie.

An epic performance from a rotating cast that also includes drummers Billy Hart andJustin Brown, Jamie Baum, Tom Christensen, Darryl Harper, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta among the reeds; Debbie Schmidt, Ralph Alessi, Igmar Thomas, Alan Ferber and Marcus Rojas as the brass; and a string section of Sara Caswell, Mark Feldman, Joyce Hammann, Meg Okura, Lois Martin, Nora Krohn, Jody Redhage and Maria Jeffers.

Malian Guitar Powerhouse Makes a Welcome Return, More Psychedelic Than Ever

The backstory to Malian guitarslinger Anansy Cissé’s new album Anoura (Songhai for “Light” and streaming at Spotify) is a very troubling, but ultimately triumphant one. He’d already recorded some of it by 2018, when he was invited to play a festival in his hometown near Timbuktu. On the way there, he and his band were attacked and abducted by thugs, who destroyed his equipment. Devastated, Cissé shelved the project and retreated to doing studio production work. But he recovered, regrouped the band and the result is a cutting-edge, deliciously psychedelic album.

The instrumentation reflects Cissé’s blend of traditional desert sounds and jamband rock. Abdoulaye Kone and Bakari Diarra share the ngoni chair, with Abrahmane Toure on bass, Mahalmadane Traore on percussion and bass as well, with the late Zoumana Tereta on single-string soku fiddle on two tracks, quite possibly the Malian master’s final studio appearance.

They open the album with Tiawo (Education), Cissé essentially telling everybody to free themselves from mental slavery over a slowly swaying, melancholy minor-key vamp, his web of reverbtoned washes, skittishly loopy riffs and searing, distorted hammer-ons contrasting with the spiky ngoni.

He follows with a couple of festival anthems. Foussa Foussa, a catchy, neon-lit roadhouse blues shuffle returned closer to its roots, has more of those blazing, reverb-infused riffs and a sly dub breakdown. Tiara has tricky syncopation that reminds of the Grateful Dead during their late 60s flirtation with Indian music, plus trippy sheets of feedback and distortion filtering behind the intertwine of overdubs.

Cissé, a shout-out to his marabout ancestors, has a relaxed, hypnotically loping groove and a gentle call-and-response, enhanced by the looming reverb riffs throughout the sonic picture. Mina, the album’s most bizarre mashup, is a brisk minor-key stoner boogie awash in wah-wah and buzzy distortion.

The band return to more stark, darkly lingering ambience with Nafa (Patience), complete with icy gothic chorus-box bass. Tereta’s acidic, trumpet-like melismas raise the energy in the acoustic-electric textures of Talka (Poverty). For whatever reason, Balkissa, a love song to Cissé’s wife, is the most anthemic and rock-oriented track here.

Nia (Mothers) has the most richly melodic blend of simmering, jangly harmonies and multitracks, Tereta’s soku adding ghostly texture in the back of the mix. The message of the album’s slowly crescendoing final cut, Djam Maganouna is basically “you’re a creep, and people have long memories.” May we all live long enough to have memories of this album…and get to enjoy another one from this irrepressibly creative guitarist.