New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: December, 2021

A Singularly Disquieting Electroacoustic Album From Pianist Peng-Chian Chen

On her latest album Electrocosmia – streaming at Spotify – pianist Peng-Chian Chen explores the intersection of new classical composition with electronics, as well as the many philosophical and real-world implications thereof.

She opens with a set of miniatures, Pierre Charvet’s Neuf Etudes aux Deux Mondes. Enervated motorik bustle, cautious strolls, spare dripping minimalism and a slow ramble through stygian depths are juxtaposed with and sometimes mingled within icy ambience or gritty industrial sonics. There’s sardonic humor as well: a plane crashing at takeoff and the nagging interruption of phone ringtones. Is the point of this that as much as we hate this techy shit, we might as well get used to it since we’re stuck with it? Or that even in the grip of a digital dystopia, there’s beauty in – or guarded hope for – the human element? Maybe both?

Next, Chen tackles Cindy Cox‘s spare, surreal Etude “La Cigüeña” for piano and sampler, its furtive upward flights and uneasy lulls set to a backdrop of what could be whalesong or birdsong. In Elainie Lillios‘ Nostalgic Visions – inspired by a Garcia Lorca childhood reminiscence – Chen throws off dramatic improvisational flourishes, goes under the piano lid for autoharp-like shimmer, chilly minimalism and a murky crush. Some of it gets flung back to her, through a sampler, darkly.

She concludes with Peter Van Zandt Lane‘s electroacoustic partita Studies in Momentum. Steady, glistening, circling phrases mingle with increasingly menancing close harmonies; a devious peek-a-boo theme meets its ghostly counterpart; a tongue-in-cheek, Charlie Chaplinesque march reaches the end at a cold reflecting pool. Chen’s stiletto articulation in the lickety-split, coyly altered third piece is the high point of the record, although the brooding tone poem that follows is just as tantalizingly brief.

Brieuc Vourch and Guillaume Vincent Bring Renewed Energy to Old Favorites

In the insightful liner notes to their new album of Franck and Richard Strauss sonatas, violinist Brieuc Vourch and pianist Guillaume Vincent quote the great conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt: “Security and beauty are not compatible.” In late 2021, that’s not just a radical statement. It would put the conductor on a terrorist watch list.

The point of that citation is that musicians have to take chances; to steal a line from Leonard Cohen, that’s how the light gets in. The duo’s raison d’etre in making the record – streaming at Spotify – is not to make contemporary avant garde music out of this, but to go under the hood and evoke how cutting-edge it was for its time. Making an album of some of the classical world’s best-loved works, recorded innumerable times by iconic figures, is a daunting task…and a bold statement, if you can pull it off.

You could read this as a critical appreciation, in real time, by two guys who really understand this. Or just a couple of players having astute fun with a couple of pieces brimming with color and luxuriant melody. Either way, this is a very confident, masculine performance.

It’s clear from the opening movement of the Strauss sonata – a relatively early work – that this is a love song, a graceful pas de deux in the two’s elegant counterpoint. An expressive player with an understated old-world vibrato, Vourch is well suited to this repertoire, and Vincent’s glittering precision matches the mood. The duo follow an organic trajectory as the passion rises, wanes and rises again.

In this duo’s hands, movement two seems to be all about pulling apart and then reconnecting, particularly when the lower registers of both instruments converge. Vourch’s sepulchral resonance grounded by Vincent’s matter-of-factness about five minutes in is breathtaking.

The pianist revels in the suspense introducing the concluding movement, then cuts loose as Vourch lingers and flits overhead, setting up the triumphant gusts as the duo ride the waves on the way out to bring this dance full circle. There’s also a priceless, self-effacingly funny moment right before the end, but you have to listen closely to catch it.

As attractive as the Strauss piece is, the Franck sonata is the big hit, and for good reason. The duo’s decision to play the first movement as steadily and straightforwardly as they do, eschewing any High Romantic rubato, is brave. It also feels a little fast. The game plan here seems to be to sidestep any kind of cliche in favor of energy, downplaying the wistfulness which Vourch brings into full angst-fueled bloom in the second movement.

That’s where the duo really engage with gusty emotion, but just as much with 19th century gleam – to set up Vourch’s fanged attack, bristling with harmonics, as the movement winds up. The choice to back away and really let the third movement linger, even as the volume rises with a shivery intensity, validates how they launched the sonata.

The resoluteness of the final movement results in a big payoff from Vincent’s bright, dancing chords and Vourch’s decision to dig in hard for bittersweetness rather than sentimentality, enhanced by a clenched-teeth, brittle vibrato in contrast with a spun-steel calm in the quieter moments. Even if you’ve heard this hundreds of times, this version will wake you up.

Pianist Éric Le Sage and a Colorful Ensemble Explore the Lesser-Known Side of a Film Music Icon

Although Nino Rota is best known for his evocative and often profound Fellini film scores, his other compositions share those sensibilities. On his most recent release Nino Rota: Chamber Music – streaming at Spotify – pianist Éric Le Sage and an inspired cast who’ve joined him before the lockdown at the Salon de Provence Festival air out a series of Rota works that deserve to be much better known. This is a colorful, very entertaining record: if you haven’t yet discovered Rota’s music that wasn’t intended for the silver screen, it might as well have been, and these performances bear that out.

They open with the Trio For Flute, Violin and Piano, shifting in a split-second between a rather furtive, lickety-split. chromatically-fueled romp and flickers of suspenseful calm. Le Sage holds the center somewhat mutedly as flutist Emmanuel Pahud and violinist Daishin Kashimoto cut loose with increasing agitation and then coalesce into an uneasy march. The noir atmosphere lingers and then reaches fever pitch in the coda: what a way to kick off the album!

There’s balletesque, bubbly woodwind-driven pageantry alongside hints at an underlying mystery which rise memorably to the surface, along with clarinet-driven nocturnal lustre (and a devious Moussorgsky quote) in the full group’s dynamically rich take of Rota’s Piccola Offerta Musicale, an early work. In Rota’s Nonet, from the peak of his career in Fellini film, the group parses heroic symphonic drama along with a similarly waltzing jubilation and a subtle turn toward unease before the good guys win: this is the fountains in the good part of Rome.

There’s a return to bustling disquiet and understatedly waltzing furtiveness of the Trio For Clarinet, Cello and Piano. The hauntingly elegant contrapuntal exchange between clarinet and cello in the second movement is an unexpected high point amid such lively, electric music.

Le Sage also indulges in cleverly rapidfire, light-fingered, music box-like phantasmagoria for solo piano.

An Entertaining, Energetic Mix of Rarities by Black Composers From Over the Years

Violinist Randall Goosby’s new album Roots, streaming at Spotify, is a fascinating, revealing and entertaining collection of music by black composers plus a couple of ringers whose most famous works were enriched by the influence of 19th and early 20th century black American music. Goosby and his inspired collaborators shift energetically through a wide expanse of styles, from rustic oldtime string band sounds, to thorny 20th century composition and a wealth of edgy blues.

He opens with Xavier Foley‘s Shelter Island, a new duo work where he’s joined by the bassist-composer in a leaping feast of minor-key blues and gospel riffage. It validates the argument that guys on the low end of the four strings are ideally suited to write for their fellow players further up the scale.

Next on the bill is Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s bracing triptych Blues Forms For Solo Violin. It’s a Schoenbergian series of short variations on blues phrases, with a lingering, aching close-harmonied midsection and a coda that reaches toward oldtime gospel jubilation. The composer was an interesting guy, a jazz musician who toward the end of his career paid the bills by writing far more pedestrian charts for 1960s top 40 hitmakers.

On the better-known side, Gershwin – one of the original white bluesmen – is represented by four short numbers from Porgy and Bess. Pianist Zhu Wang joins Goosby in an elegantly ornamented, more than distantly troubled new arrangement of Summertime. Likewise, the two infuse A Woman Is a Sometime Thing with a stark ragtime energy.

Their incisive, tango-like strut and bluesy ornamentation in It Ain’t Necessarily So add a playfully devious edge. And they raise Bess You Is My Woman Now to a confidently restrained triumph.

Goosby brings Wang back for William Grant Still’s three-part Suite for Violin and Piano, beginning with the African Dance, whose shifting blues riffage and deliciously hard-charging conclusion make it a mini-suite in itself. Part two, Mother and Child rises fascinatingly from a lingering somberness to an assertive, Asian-tinged pentatonic theme and then a similarly triumphant ending. The two shuffle and flurry through Garmin, the jaunty conclusion.

The duo continue with three pieces by Florence Price. Adoration is a spare, rapt love ballad. Goosby gets to revel in the sharp-fanged cadenzas and resonant gospel lulls in her Fantasie No. 1 in G minor as Wang mashes up the blues with High Romantic phantasmagoria. The Fantasie No. 2 in F# minor starts as a more starkly pensive take on the same blend – blues melody, big Romantic chords and flourishes – and grows more lively.

Goosby and Wang play Maud Powell’s arrangement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Deep River, leaping from gospel reverence to one of the composer’s signature sizzling crescendos. In many ways, the black British composer – who was a star conductor during his late 19th century heyday – was Dvorak in reverse. Where Dvorak brought Eastern Europe to the blues, Coleridge-Taylor did the opposite, with considerably wilder results.

The choice of Dvorak’s Sonatina in G major as a conclusion subtly brings the album full circle. It’s closer to courtly late Habsburg Empire music than 19th century spirituals, but the connection is still vivid, especially in the plaintive, wistful cadences and contrasting camp-meeting liveliness of the second movement. The two musicians bring an anthemic, occasionally coyly romping sensibility to the opening allegro, linger in the occasional moment of hazy unease in the scherzo and build folksy flair in the coda.

Much as it’s a great thing that music by neglected black composers is making a huge comeback, we need to make sure that this movement doesn’t get hijacked by the fascists who devised critical race theory as a smokescreen for the New Abnormal. One suspects that Goosby would heartily endorse that dedication to the cause.

Mafalda Minnozzi Reinvents Classic Italian Film Music on Her New Album

Singer Mafalda Minnozzi‘s career spans the worlds of jazz, tropicalia and Mediterranean balladry. Her new album Cinema City: Jazz Scenes From Italian Film – streaming at Bandcamp – is a perfect vehicle for her since the collection underscores the close affinity between Italian film music from the 50s onward, and bossa nova. With her expressive high soprano, Minnozzi brings a cinematic swath of emotions to life: she also has a puckish sense of humor. Although she sings most of these tracks in the original Italian, she also shows off a strong command of English.

Skip the opening number, a playful and coyly amusing take of La Dolce Vita ruined by a break for whistling. Track two, Loss of Love is an aptly muted, poignant, steady theme lowlit by Tiago Costa’s piano and Paul Ricci’s guitar over bassist Sidiel Vieira and drummer Ricardo Mosca’s slow, sotto-voce swing.

Minnozzi and the band bring a gentle, velvety approach to the tiptoeing bossa Metti una Cera a Cena. Special guest Dave Liebman’s soprano sax spirals joyously in Nino Rota’s Cinema Paradiso love theme over glittering piano clusters and a tight triplet groove.

Art Hirahara takes a rare turn on organ, flickering throughout a hazy, delicately swinging reinvention of the thinly veiled druggy cha-cha Amapola. The pensive, tango-inflected Amici Mei title theme is a feature for Graham Haynes, who takes an understatedly gritty turn on flugelhorn.

Hirahara returns for a bittersweetly shuffling take of Anonino Veneziano and then a more immersive, expansive version of Bruno Martino’s E La Chiamano Estate, a prime example of the Italian/Brazilian connection.

Luca Aquino guests on flugelhorn, intertwining with Ricci’s intricate picking in a raptly emotive performance of Nella Fantasia, which has special resonance for Minnozzi considering that it was her wedding song. Lingering guitar over flickering organ and a steady backbeat make Cappuntamento (from the film A Beiro do Caminho) one of the album’s most memorable moments.

She rescues Arrivederci Roma from Rat Pack cheesiness, imbuing it with gravitas but also defiant energy, grounded by trombonist Jorginho Neto. Se, from the Cinema Paradiso soundtrack, gets a spare, tender interpretation, followed by a soaring, organ-and-vocalese-fueled Deborah’s Theme. Minnozzi winds up the album with a final Cinema Paradiso number, Maturity, evoking a visceral sense of longing amid Costa’s turbulent phrasing. Count this as one of the most strikingly original releases of 2021.

Roberto Prosseda Brings Rare Morricone Solo Piano Music to Life

Ennio Morricone is best remembered for his film scores, notably his Sergio Leone spaghetti western soundtracks, where he built the foundation for what would become known as the southwestern gothic genre. Although Morricone was a pianist, he didn’t write a lot of solo piano music, and much of that material remains obscure. On his latest album, pianist Roberto Prosseda has unearthed some of those works along with some better-known title themes, courageously recorded in Sacile, Italy last spring and streaming at Spotify.

He opens with a starry, spare, neoromantic miniature, The Legend of 1900 theme and closes with the jarringly polyrhythmic modernism of the conclusion of the Four Studies For Pedal Piano. In between, Prosseda has grimly precise fun with the carnivalesque, Lynchian strut of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion: the way Morricone shifts the melody from righthand to left is a typically artful move. It’s fascinating to hear how the composer hides a border-rock melody just beneath the surface of Love Circle, and somewhat deeper in The Tartar Desert.

Prosseda brings a spacious, bittersweet rapture to the Cinema Paradiso theme and a striking dynamic range to the broodingly immersive, Satie-esque minimalism of the First Study For Piano and then the steadier White Dog.

Other works on the program here include the saturnine, rather wistful The Two Stages of Life; the Second Study for Piano, where Prosseda works a startling-versus-calm dichotomy; and the absolutely gorgeous Angels of Power, shifting between a love theme and a moody, baroque-tinged melody.

There’s also a bounding invention, a boldly crescendoing processional, and an altered canon that bring to mind the work of Vincent Persichetti. Morricone was a lyrical composer and excelled at capturing a vast expanse of moods. Doctrinaire Second Viennese School atonality was not his thing.

A Fearless, Funny, Spot-On New Holiday Protest Song Album From the Pocket Gods

The Pocket Gods might hold the alltime record for the total number of songs released by a rock band. A considerable portion of their voluminous output comes from a series of hundred-song albums written to protest Spotify’s nanopayment system: a couple quid per million plays, more or less.

The band come out of the scruffy British space where psychedelia meets punk and garage rock. Since the early zeros, they’ve released everything from a concept album about Oak Island, where a fortune in pirate treasure is reputedly hidden, to the incendiary No Room at the (Holiday) Inn collection of Christmas-themed protest songs which made the top ten albums of 2020 list here. Frontman Mark Christopher Lee is a purist pop polymath who never loses his sense of humor, no matter how grim things get – and they get very, very grim here.

This year the Pocket Gods have a snotty new holiday album, Apocalyptic Christmas, streaming at Spotify. It’s basically their greatest holiday hits. As anti-Christmas music, it’s irresistible. Some of the songs are pure punk rock, ranging from filthy and Ramonesy to more overtly political. There are also instrumentals, punked-out carols and a loopy little number built around a sample of Boris Johnson’s father waxing eloquent about “decreasing the surplus population.” No joke.

On the lighthearted side, there’s a Stiff Little Fingers-style version of Silent Night. On the more venomous tip, there’s the title track, a garage-punk critique of New Abnormal surveillance state totalitarianism. It’s sort of this decade’s counterpart to the Clash’s English Civil War.

Some of the songs, like Covid Cavalry, have a poignancy that transcends the rage of the music: imagine being separated from your significant other for months on end by a global divide-and-conquer scheme. If you’re one of the literally billions who’ve been deprived of some basic human necessity since the more-or-less international fascist coup d’etat in 2020, this resolutely funny, quintessentially British band will lift your spirits.

Pensive, Drifting, Broodingly Hypnotic Acoustic Tunesmithing From Natalie Jane Hill

A cynic would say we’ve heard this a million times: girl with acoustic guitar singing sad songs of loneliness and abandonment. Add to that a pervasive Joni Mitchell influence, and you get hundreds of thousands of acts who go back forty years and more. That being said, songwriter Natalie Jane Hill manages to use that tradition as a stepping-off point without sounding obvious, which is more of an achievement than it might seem. She has a keen eye for detail, leaves some of her best punchlines unsaid, likes open tunings and has nimble fingers on the acoustic guitar. Her latest vinyl album Solely is streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the record, Hill’s vocals are more contained and less jazz-influenced than Mitchell’s. In the sarcastically titled opening track, Euphoria, Hill’s narrator is driving just to get away from it all, “Avoiding the street home till the low fuel light glows.” Consider: she’s got such a troubled mind that she’s not even paying attention to the gas gauge. Musically, the songh sets the stage for the rest of the record, just Hill’s brisk, clustering fingerpicking lowlit by stark violin, pedal steel and glockenspiel in places.

The central image in Little Teeth is how Hill envisions flower buds floating on the breeze, with glockenspiel tinkling delicately in the background. She works a familiar, circling open-tuned riff in the bucolic guitar-and-violin tune If I Were a Willow. Hill follows a stark, Britfolk-tinged minor-key theme in Plants and Flowers That Do Not Grow Here, subtly colored with steel, violin and what could either be a wood flute or a mellotron patch.

As a portrait of predawn solitude, To Feel Alone is even more spaciously drifting. Despite the calm, hypnotic backdrop, there’s unexpected venom in the album’s title track: as she tells it, breakup boyfriend is a fool’s errand.

Hill creates a similar dichotomy in the even more cynical Pretty View. The steel guitar sighs and swoops throughout Orb Weaver: spiders have seldom been portrayed so sympathetically. There’s more nocturnal gleam and glisten in the warmly enveloping empowerment anthem Listen to Me Tomorrow: “The older you get, these words are left unsaid,” Hill cautions. She winds up the album with Better Now, a mea culpa of sorts from a chronic depressive who’s self-aware enough to recognize how secondary trauma works. It’s an apt way to wind up an album that grimly evokes the emotional toll of these past twenty months.

Strong Tunesmithing and Inspired Playing on Drummer Mareike Wiening’s New Album

Mareike Wiening is the latest to validate the argument that good drummers always get the best bands because everybody wants to work with them. Wiening has an added advantage in that she writes bright, invitingly translucent material that makes a great springboard for improvisation. Her new album Future Memories – streaming at Spotify – is a strong, playfully rhythmic collection of tunes. The title reflects the composer’s resolute hope for a world where we’ve returned to normal, people can travel and freely associate, and she can pull her band together again.

She and the quintet – Rich Perry on tenor sax, Alex Goodman on guitar, Glenn Zaleski on piano and Johannes Felscher on bass – open with Northern Sail, inspired by the Norwegian coast where Wiening grew up. Goodman’s sharp incisions and Perry’s crystalline lines sail over Zaleski’s catchy, acerbically circling riffage. Out on the open water, the sense of adventure grows as the waves get choppier, Goodman and then Felscher bounding energetically as Wiening dips to a tiptoe pulse on her hardware.

She explores Spanish beats in El Escorial, Goodman riding her first tangent with an echoey flair, then Zaleski and Perry get into the gritty rhythm, building a distant nocturnal suspense as Wiening bounds and crashes, down to a lull where Felscher keeps the tricky dance going.

Zaleski and Goodman’s chiming ratchets introduce An Idea Is Unpredictable, Perry floating enigmatically before joining the lattice and then leading the band away as the sound expands. Zaleski adds amiable wee-hours saloon spirals; the concept seems to be that it’s not such a bad thing when entropy inevitably intrudes.

RiChanges begins as a hard-charging straight-ahead postbop swing tune in disguise, Perry’s steady eight notes pulling the bass and drums into the racewalk before Zaleski contributes a romping solo. Perry takes a sad solo to open the album’s title track over the band’s reflective resonance, then brightens the mood a little: this is what happens when musicians are deprived of their livelihood!

The album’s best track, The Other Soul gets a brooding, echoing intro from Goodman and Zaleski, Perry adding a moody solo over biting chordal work, Zaleski’s unsettled modalities rippling above the bandleader’s understated gravitas.

Goodman draws the band into Seesaw March with his catchy, optimistic riffs, then simmers and drives it as Wiening adds judicious background color, Zaleski fueling the triumphant upward drive. They close the record with Dance Into July, one of many prime examples where Wiening pairs sax and piano for vibraphone-like voicings. Zaleski gets to leap and ripple through the first solo, Goodman firing off unpredictable cascades of chords and flurries. We finally get a precise Wiening solo: if anything, it would be good to hear more of her. She’s the rare uncluttered drummer.

Celebrating a Bluegrass Icon With a Massive 101-Track Compilation

Who wouldn’t want to listen to a hundred tracks worth of Doc Watson? There are actually 101 songs on the latest compilation of the bluegrass icon’s massive output, Life’s Work: A Retrospective, streaming at Spotify. It’s got everything that made Watson a first-ballot Country Music Hall of Famer and one of the best-loved Americana artists of all time.

He may have been best known for his whirlwind, seemingly effortless flatpicking, and this playlist has plenty of that, including some choice live takes. Watson follows his signature showstopper Tickling the Strings with a similarly high-voltage version of Black Mountain Rag. His wind-tunnel legato picking in Southbound and Dill Pickle Rag, just to name a couple of songs here, will take your breath away.

But there’s much more. Pulling this playlist together was a herculean effort. Watson’s collaborations with other artists are represented on several tracks, notably when he harmonizes with Bill Monroe on Monroe’s first big bluegrass hit, the fire-and-brimstone waltz What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul. Many of these songs draw a straight line back from Appalachia to their origins in the British isles: case in point, the wistfully oldtimey waltz Storms on the Ocean, with Jean Ritchie.

There are several tracks with his guitarist son Merle (who died tragically and inspired the elder Watson to found Merlefest, the annual bluegrass festival), from the country gospel hymn We Shall All Be Reunited, to an intricate take of the murder ballad Banks of the Ohio. Doc Watson was also a talented banjo player, and there are a bunch of banjo tunes here, including Rambling Hobo, which was the first song his dad taught him on the instrument.

There are all kinds of unexpected treats here. There’s My Little Woman, You’re So Sweet, a minor-key blues that Elvis ended up appropriating for Heartbreak Hotel. The Jack Williams Band does a swinging, jangly electric version of the ominous old spiritual, Pharaoh with Watson out in front.

There’s a goofy murder ballad, Wanted Man, the considerably creepier Little Omie Wise. and the even more grimly detailed I Saw a Man at Close of Day, about a drunk who kills his family. And in Watson’s version of Tom Dooley, the condemned man is innocent.

The history here runs deep. Many of these songs underscore the cross-pollination between 19th century black and white folk music, including a laid-back bluegrass take of Sittin on Top of the World, a spare cowboy variant on St. James Infirmary and one of the scores of versions of John Henry. In this one, the guy beats the steam drill and lives to tell the tale.

The tracks are chronological. As the collection goes on, Watson’s voice grows flintier, and some cheesy material and subpar collaborators occasionally make an appearance But his chops are always miles ahead of the rest of the band, whoever they are.

The very first song in this collection is a digitized, lo-fi mono field recording of the country gospel standard The Precious Jewel. The clarity of the young Watson’s voice, even in this rough mix, is breathtaking; otherwise, it’s impossible to tell if he’s playing an acoustic or electric guitar. The song cuts off suddenly at the end. How little audience recordings have changed over the years.