New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: indie classical

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Two Rivers, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Geroges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Kaseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.

International Contemporary Ensemble Unveil a Rapturously Low-Key Program at the Miller Theatre

International Contemporary Ensemble probably cover more ground than any other indie classical group, in terms of territory,  personnel and repertoire. These days they’re more or less a bicoastal unit, with a revolving door of first-class players. Last week at the Miller Theatre, a characteristically eclectic New York subset of the organization rewarded the big crowd who’d come up to 116th and Broadway with a texturally delicious program of duo and trio works spiced with shimmering microtones, overtones and strange tunings. The ostensible theme was animal behavior; if that was meant to acknowledge how much more animals hear than we do, that made more sense.

The first really interesting piece on the bill was the world premiere of Dai Fujikura’s White Rainbow, which Jacob Greenberg played with a graceful spaciousness on harmonium. Despite the choice of instrument, there wasn’t any distinctive Indian flavor to the composer’s methodically spaced, minimalistic waves, sometimes employing a drone effect from phrase to phrase. This gave a lulling, comforting sense to what otherwise could have been construed as a wry series of trick endings.

Technically speaking, the piece de resistance was Ann Cleare’s Luna (The Eye That Opens the Other Eye), played solo on alto sax by Ryan Muncy. Employing every fragment of bandwidth in his daunting extended technique, Muncy built sepulchral overtones that pulled gently and wafted around a center, a study in mist, stillness and unselfconscious virtuosity.

Suzanne Farrin’s Polvere et Ombra was a playground for lush, lively glissandos by harpist Nuiko Wadden. Joined by acoustic guitarist Dan Lippel, the duo made their way cautiously through the allusively sinister microtones of Drew Baker’s Skulls. Muncy and Greenberg joined forces for the concluding piece, Alex Mincek’s Pendulum III, which when it built enough steam was a striking reminder of how subtle changes in a particular scale can create radical changes in the music’s colors.

These early evening, free “pop-up” concerts at the Miller Theatre can be hit-and-miss, but more often than not they’re a real treat. Originally conceived as an intimate series with free beer and the audience seated onstage, they’ve outgrown the stage (and sometimes the beer too). But this isn’t really a drinking event, it’s about the music. Since their inception in 2012, a steadily growing number of crowds have had the opportunity to hear John Zorn world premieres, Berio Sequenzas, a deliciously creepy performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and even a rare all-Michael Gordon bill of electroacoustic works in addition to scores of pieces by lesser-known but no less intriguing composers. The final one this season is tonight, June 13; doors are at 5:30, music at 6, played by Miller favorites the Mivos Quartet.

And International Contemporary Ensemble perform Pauline Oliveros’ Heart of Tones on the plaza at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival on July 28 at 7:30 PM.

Vast, Intricate, Awe-Inspiring Oceans of Sound Downtown

What’s the likelihood that the two opening works on a program featuring John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean would hold their own alongside that epically enveloping, meticulously churning, playfully palindromic masterpiece? It happened yesterday at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown, where Novus NY delivered a mighty coda to this season’s program of music on themes of water justice, staged by Trinity Church.

The pervasive cynicism that still exists at corporate rock concerts has roots in the classical world: “Let’s warm up the crowd with something short and random and then get down to business.” From the first few stark, distantly enigmatic notes of Luna Pearl Woolf’s After the Wave, a portrait of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and its aftermath, it was clear that Julian Wachner’s fearlessly eclectic ensemble had come to deliver a message. With just the hint of foreshadowing, the methodical pulse of daily routine gave way to a flood of low tonalities and bracing close harmonies as haunting as anything in Adams’ work. From there the orchestra made their way through an unexpectedly triumphant latin-tinged fanfare of sorts, up to a conclusion that signaled triumph and recovery over an ocean of devastation.

The world premiere of violist/composer Jessica Meyer’s string orchestra piece Through Which We Flow was  even more consistently riveting. Introducing the work, Meyer explained how she’d been inspired by Masuru Emoto’s book The Hidden Messages in Water, which claims that human thought directed at water can affect the shape of its ice crystals. Considering that we’re 85% water, if science can validate Emoto’s thesis, this would be paradigm-shifting to the extreme.

Meyer has made a name for herself with her intricate, solo loopmusic, its intertwining themes and atmospheric electronic effects. That influence was apparent in the work’s subtle thematic shifts, intricately circular motives and rhythmic persistence, not unlike Julia Wolfe. But freed from the confines of the loop pedal, Meyer’s mini-suite flowed carefully and methodically from rapt, mantra-like permutations, through grim insistence to a peacefully hypnotic ending. All this demanded plenty of extended plucking and percussive technique, and the ensemble rose to the challenge. It’s the best thing Meyer’s ever written: there isn’t a string orchestra on the planet that wouldn’t have a field day playing this.

So it’s fair to say that Become Ocean wasn’t just the piece de resistance, but a fitting coda.  Performed by three separate segments of the orchestra – strings and percussion facing the church’s south wall, brass on the back balcony, with winds, harp and vibraphone under the nave of the church, Wachner (wearing headphones) led the groups through a seamless morass of tidal shifts, endlessly bubbly chains of rivulets and a titanic wall of sound that evoked dread and deadly power as much as awestruck wonder.

It’s easy to describe the early part of the work as orchestral Eno (and just as difficult to play: try pedaling the same note for ten minutes, nonstop, maintaining perfectly unwavering tone and timbre!). But that womb-like reverie gave way to a wall as menacing as anything depicted in Woolf’s piece – at five times the volume. As themes made their way slowly back and forth between the three groups of musicians, it was as if the audience had become part of the orchestra, literally immersed in the music. In an era where the Seventh Continent continues to expand – plastic springwater bottles no doubt being part of it – and the Fukushima reactors continue to leak their lethal toxins into the Pacific, it’s hard to think of a more relevant concert being staged in New  York this year.

Trinity Wall Street’s orchestra conclude this spring’s season with a performance of Philip Glass’ similarly rapturous if not necessarily water-themed Symphony No. 5 there tonight, May 19 and tomorrow, May 20 at 8 PM. Admission is free; early arrival is advised.

Sam Sowyrda Brings His Relentless, Spectacularly Hypnotic Percussion Pieces to Trans-Pecos

Percussionist Sam Sowyrda has a thing for dynamics. He likes to build his compositions almost imperceptibly, giving himself an enormous amount of range to explore when he wants to get really loud – or just sort of loud. That’s where the MalletKAT (electronic vibraphone) player from trippy quirk-instrumentalists Cloud Becomes Your Hand ends up about three minutes into the more than twenty-minute A-side of his debut solo album Luminous Horizons, streaming at Gold Bolus Recordings and also available on cassette. He’s airing out that material and probably a lot more at the release show on May 13 starting at around 3 at Trans-Pecos. Cover is $10; wild avant garde marching band Ashcan Orchestra (he’s a member) follow his opening set, then Sowyrda eventually closes the evening at around 5:30. Hallowed Bells, a synth duo who seem to be shooting for some kind of postrock/cinematic thing, play before the second set.

Vibraphone is his main axe, but here he plays a custom-built dulcimer made from a piano soundboard. After rising to a hammeringly precise pitch that brings to mind Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, he lets the sound fall away to the occasional, resonant hit on what sound like temple gongs. Then, slowly and methodically, he builds toward a crescendo again with a calm, focused, gamelanesque approach that brings to mind Susie Ibarra. Is that a tremolo-picked guitar? A mbira? It’s just nuanced enough to give away the fact that it’s Sowyrda’s tireless fast-twitch muscles that are playing rapidfire volley after volley, rather than letting a laptop or a loop pedal do the work. The one-man orchestra effect that develops is as mesmerizing as any recent Michael Gordon percussion piece.

The B-side, the vibraphone piece Occidental Error, clocks in at a whopping 33 minutes plus. It follows a similar tangent, beginning louder but more minimalistic, creating more of a hypnotic effect with very subtle polyrhythmic shifts and then the album’s gentlest, most envelopingly resonant moments. For the hell of it, here’s how Sowyrda’s Bandcamp page is tagged: “experimental acoustic ambient beautiful noise drone textural New York.” Spot-on.

This Year’s MATA Festival of New Music: As Challenging and Inspiring As Ever

It’s been nineteen years since Philip Glass and his circle decided to begin programming the scores that people around the world were sending him. Since then, the annual MATA Festival has grown into an annual celebration of cutting-edge, and these days, increasingly relevant new music from around the world. In recent years, they’ve found a comfortable home at the Kitchen in Chelsea, where the festival continues nightly at 8 PM through Saturday, April 29; tix are $20; To keep the momentum going, the organizers are also staging a series of shows this summer featuring new chamber music from the Islamic world, as well as intimate house concerts (take THAT, Groupmuse!).

Night one of this year’s festival began with humor and ended, ok, humorously, if your sense of humor extends to unlikely sonic snafus onstage. Festival honcho Todd Tarantino proudly announced that the pieces selected for five nights worth of music were chosen from among works by 1159 composers from 72 countries. In their North American debut, Danish indie classical ensemble Scenatet tackled a dauntingly eclectic program from seven composers and acquitted themselves with equal parts spectacular extended technique and meticulous, minimalist resonance.

Their countryman Kaj Duncan David’s Computer Music was first on the bill, performed by the octet on matching laptops, each reading from a graphic score calling for the musicians to punch in on random heartbeats, more or less. The results created a pulse of light in addition to sound, an aspect that drew inadvertent winces from the performers until they’d become accustomed to a little blast of light from the screen. As it grew from spare to more complex, it got a lot funnier: a bad cop role (or a boss role) was involved. As an electronic music parable of The Office, maybe, it made a point and got the crowd chuckling.

German composer Martin Grütter’s Messer Engel Atem Kling called for some squalling, bow-shredding extended technique from violinist Kirsten Riis-Jensen and violist Mina Luka Fred as they worked an uneasy push-pull against the stygian anchor of My Hellgren’s cello. Yet as much as the high strings pulled away from the center, the harmonies stayed firmly nailed in. Part cello metal, part Zorn string piece, it was a clever study in contradictions – a depiction of a composer struggling to break free of convention, maybe?

Murat Çolak’s electroacoustic Orchid, an astigmatic mashup of eras, idioms and atmospheres, blended grey-sky horizontality, hazily uneasy percussion and shards of brooding, acerbically chromatic Turkish classical music. What would have been even more fun is if there’d been a second ensemble for the group onstage to duel it out with instead of doing haphazardly (and cruelly difficult) polyrhythms with the laptop, clarinetist Vicky Wright front and center. In a similar vein, Japanese/Dutch composer Yu Oda’s Everybody Is Brainwashed blended a simple, cliched EDM thump with live cajon and a simple, rather cloying violin theme that more than hinted at parody.

Like the opening piece, Eric Wubbels’ mini-suite Life-Still – one of several world premieres on the bill – had an aleatoric (improvisational) element, its simple, carefully considered, resonant accents gradually building into a distantly starlit lullaby. For the final movement, string and reed players switched to bells and brought it down to a comfortable landing.

Daniel Tacke’s Musica Ricercata/Musica Poetica for viola, clarinet and vibraphone. followed a similarly starry, nocturnal trajectory, a fragmentary canon at quarterspeed or slower, inspired by the motion of voices in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Putting two such rapturously calm pieces back to back made for a quietly powerful anti-coda. A final number was derailed by technical difficulties, a rare event at this festival: watching it was like being in an iso booth in a recording session with bad headphones and wondering what everybody else was doing. 

Tonight’s show at the Kitchen continues the festival’s vast global sweep with music for piano, viola and percussion. Thursday’s lineup promises to be more lush and expansive; according to Tarantino, Friday’s looks inward, deeply. The final night, Saturday, features all sorts of unusual instruments in addition to those typically employed by chamber orchestra Novus NY. If you happen to miss these, the summer programming is something to look forward to.

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Bring Their Haunting, Otherworldly Exploration of Near-Death Themes to the French Institute

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s latest album, Crossing Over – streaming at Spotify – is as haunting a collection of music as has been released over the past year. It’s meant to be. Making their way through a dynamic mix of works from around the globe and the past hundred years or so, with an emphasis on contemporary composers, the lustrous choir explore themes addressing an end-of-life dream state and the prospect of life after death. They’re bringing their rapt intensity to a concert at the French Institute/Alliance Française, 55 E 59th St. on April 27 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be singing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine along with stark American Civil War hymns. Tix are $30, $10 for students, and worth it.

The album opens with Daniel Elder’s Elegy and its somberly memorable variations on a stark three-chord theme based on the familiar trumpet tune Taps, punctuated by an energetic soprano solo. The group follows that with John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, an eight-part suite of mostly Japanese haiku-inspired miniatures. A calm processional sets the stage for brief variations that vary from more hazy to disarmingly direct and minimalist, to fluttering and echoey, often anchored by an unwavering resonance. The suite concludes with the warily anthemic The Butterfly, an austere Acoman Indian folk tune and an overture on the main theme. Hardly easy material to sing, but the performance is steely and focused.

Nicolai Kedrov’s brief Otche Nash maintains the steady, sober ambience, followed by Jón Leifs’ Requiem with its cavatina-like pulse and low//high contrasts. The harmonies grow denser and more nebulous, then pair off in treble and bass registers in the dynamically shifting, brooding John Donne-inspired Heliocentric Meditation, by Robert Vuichard.

The melodies leap around more in William Schuman’a triptych Carols of Death, although they’re far from celebratory and awash in tense close harmonies. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Heyr þú oss himnum á has the stately pace of a medieval funeral procession. Strange as it is to say, this new setting of an ancient psalm is a lot more upbeat than the rest of the composer’s vast, spacious work. The album concludes with a final hymn-like Tavener piece, Funeral Ikos.

Bearthoven Take a Bite Out of the Accessible Side of the Avant Garde

Bearthoven’s piano/bass/percussion lineup would be as orthodox as orthodox gets if they were a jazz trio, In the world of indie classical and chamber music, that’s a much less likely configuration. The eclectic, disarmingly tuneful debut album by pianist Karl Larson, Gutbucket bassist Pat Swoboda and Tigue percussionist Matt Evans, aptly titled Trios, features the work of six cutting-edge composers and is due to be streaming this May 5 at the Cantaloupe Music Bandcamp page. They’re playing the album release show at 7:15 sharp on April 18 at the Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15.

A lot of this music follows a rapid, steady staccato rhythm that is maddeningly difficult to play, but the trio make it sound easy. Brooks Frederickson’s catchy, anvilling, minimalist Undertoad opens the album, a steady but intricate and subtly polyrhythmic web of melody. A little later on, Ken Thomson’s Grizzly follows a similar tangent with bells, both struck and bowed, dancing through the mix as it brightens, then descends into the murk briefly only to emerge re-energized. By contrast, Anthony Vine’s From a Forest of Standing Mirrors moves glacially and raptly through an Arvo Part-like haze to slightly more kinetic, distantly Japanese-flavored belltones.

Fjóla Evans’ tone poem Shoaling explores individual voicings within a group arrangement, rising out of almost imperceptible, shifting fogbanks of sound to a series of grimly catchy low-register piano melodies within the smoky vortex. Larson’s subtly dynamic yet forceful attack pierces the surface above his bandmates’ bowed bass and other instruments. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s atmospheric/arrestive dichotomies come to mind: it’s album’s the most intense and captivating track.

Simple Machines, by Brendon Randall-Myers is a a cleverly and dauntingly arranged series of polyrhythmic melodies, its motorik cadence interrupted by the closest thing to free jazz here on its way to a triumphant, cinematic sweep. The album’s final piece is Adrian Knight’s uneasily serene The Ringing World, which appropriates its title from the journal of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Swoboda’s wispy harmonics flit like ghosts in a churchyard amidst Mompou-like belltones played in unison by Larson and Evans on piano and bells. 

As accessible as it is cutting-edge, this album could go a long way toward changing plenty of misconceptions. As if we need more proof that this century’s serious concert music isn’t all necessarily awkward and spastic, this is it.

Looking Back at Some Wild String Madness at Barbes

Violist/composer Leanne Darling is the rare stellar classical musician who can school you with her improvisations. In the early part of this decade, she made a mark as part of the ambitious, dazzlingly eclectic Trio Tritticali. As she proved in that group, she’s as at home with latin and Middle Eastern music, string metal and funk as she is with the classics she was trained to play. She has a flair for quirky, sometimes hilarious arrangements of pop and rock hits. Much as she can be very entertaining, she can also be very poignant: it wouldn’t be overhype to put her on the same page with Jessica Pavone and Ljova Zhurbin.

The last time she was onstage and this blog was in the house, it was last year at Barbes and she was playing with wild chamber ensemble Tom Swafford’s String Power. And it was 4/20. But as much as there was a lot of improvisation going on, it wasn’t a 4/20 kind of show: everybody was pretty much on the same page. Considering how much time has passed since then, it’s hard to remember who was onstage other than the violinist/bandleader, Darling, and bassist Dan Loomis. Her old Trio Tritticali cello bandmate Loren Dempster, maybe? Patti Kilroy on violin, if memory serves right, with a handful of other string players? Regardless, the performance represented everybody well.

They opened with a striking, emphatically swaying baroque number – Pachelbel, maybe? – with a series of tightly wound solos and cadenzas from throughout the group. Swafford’s arrangement of the Velvets classic Venus in Furs was closer to Vivaldi than Lou Reed, full of neat counterpoint and polyrhythms that took on a menacing swirl as the individual group members diverged from the center, Swafford taking a shivery, slithery solo that would have made John Cale smile.

The first of Darling’s arrangements, Boogie Wonderland, was the funnest part of the evening. It’s surprising that only a few punk bands have covered it. Darling’s chart turned it into a constantly shifting exchange of voices. Later in the set she and the group had fun with another one of her charts, turning a schlocky dance-pop hit by Muse into something approaching Radiohead. And Bohemian Rhapsody was as over-the-top hilarious as it possibly could have been, as ridiculously fun as the Main Squeeze Orchesta’s accordion version. That kind of insanity aside, the high point of the evening was Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab Egyptian classic Azizah.

If memory serves right – a dubious proposition at this point – they might have done a Mingus tune, a twisted mashup of psychedelia and bluegrass, and something that sounded like My Brightest Diamond without lyrics but wasn’t. Much as this is Swafford’s project, Darling played an important part in it, and her own groups are just as much fun. If you’re wondering why this blog would wait this long to cover the show, it’s because Darling had a Williamsburg gig scheduled for this week that apparently got cancelled: watch this space for upcoming performances. 

Rising Star Composer Ayumi Okada Brings Her Vivid, Picturesque, Cinematic Sounds to Upper Manhattan

Pianist/composer Ayumi Okada writes vivid, cinematic songs without words. Her music is full of stories, and humor, and unselfconscious depth. Much as her sense of melody is appealingly consonant, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a neoromantic: she’s most at home in the borderlands with Debussy and Ravel. A composer-performer, she’s premiering a new piano quintet with a first-class chamber ensemble including star cellist James Waldo on March 10 at 7:30 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 20 Cumming St. in Washington Heights. The group will also play music of Dvorak, Bach, Johann Goldberg, Caroline Shaw and Doug Balliett; admission is $15/$10 stud. Take the 1 train to Dyckman St.

Okada’s debut album is Here, Where the Land Ends and the Sea Begins – streaming at Spotify  – a beguiling mix of chamber works. It opens with Okada’s String Quartet No. 1 a steady, bittersweetly theme with echoes of Dvorak and baroque-inflected counterpoint that gives way to a stormily dancing pulse which she elegantly ends up bringing full circle. There’s an arthouse film with a philosophical poignancy that needs this for when the main titles roll, a strongly voiced performance by Waldo, violinists Karen Dekker and Meredith Ezinma Ramsay and violist Rose Hashimoto.

The second work, Cape Roca has a similarly picturesque sweep, Waldo’s austere lines against resonant glimmer and then gracefully ornamented neoromanticism from pianist Alyona Aksyonova. The miniature A Walk in the Park is a showcase for Okada’s playful sense of humor, Aksyonova’s devious leaps and bounds in tandem with peek-a-boo clarinet from Yumi Ito bookending a momentary cloud passing across the sky.

Okada’s Piano Trio No. 1, with the standard orchestration of piano, violin and cello hints at chromatic Shostakovian menace in between stately Piazzolla-esque passages and hints of late Romanticism. The album concludes with a triptych, the Light Princess Suite. Aksyonova plays a majestically enigmatic, emphatically waltzing theme over Waldo’s austere washes in the first movement. The second, where the rest of the strings join in, is awash in moody high/low, still/kinetic contrasts in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s more airy chamber works. Once again, Waldo’s starkness grounds the piano’s dancing, Debussyesque figures as the suite winds out, artfully shifting meters. It’s Okada at her most colorful and picturesque: this intrepidly dancing  creature takes a lot of detours, but she can’t be stopped.

A Lush, Epic Birthday Show by Richard Sussman’s Evolution Ensemble at Roulette

Tuesday night at Roulette, pianist Richard Sussman told the crowd that his nonet the Evolution Ensemble had played its signature composition, his Evolution Suite, maybe five or six times previously, and that this performance was the best of them all. It was his birthday, too. The lush, epic sweep and subtle humor of the performance more than validated the Chamber Music America grant responsible for it.

“I didn’t know I had something programmatic until I’d written it,” Sussman winkingly explained beforehand. Its five movements explore a creation myth, written mostly for piano, bass, drums and strings, with characteristically vivid, intuitive, lyrical solos and textural lustre from trumpeter/flugelhornist Tim Hagans and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry. The duo’s exuberantly intertwining counterpoint literally took the piece out on a high note: the ride there was just as much fun.

Austere fogbanks from the string quartet of violinists Mark Feldman and Mario Forte, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Peter Sachon kicked off the first of Sussman’s uneasily glistening, spaciously Messiaenic passages that he expanded methodically. The first of Perry’s similarly considered, elegantly crescendoing solos handed off to Hagans, who put on a clinic in finding new and surprisingly subtle ways to color a long series of stairstepping upward and downward chromatic runs.

Since all the gods were tuckered out from creating an entire universe, it made sense that the suite’s second movement would have a balmy swing, in a Gil Evans/Miles Davis vein. Dreamily surrealistic piano ushered in a deep-space tableau spiced with microtonal strings, a drifting Perry solo, a balletesque interlude from bassist Mike Richmond and artful variations on a steady clave from drummer Clarence Penn, who would revisit that trope much more viscerally and impactfully later on.

A rather horror-stricken tritone riff set off the suite’s centerpiece, Nexus, and the chase was  on, with a darkly Mingue-esque bustle. A dancing violin solo from Forte heated the mix, Richmond’s black crude bubbles in stark contrast to Sussman’s starlit lines and the shivery string passage that finally fueled an enthusiastic clapalong from the crowd.

The fourth movement opened on an understatedly, portentous note, Penn’s dynamically nuanced and then explosive solo taking centerstage before the piece wound out on an unexpectedly jubilant tangent. Throughout the work, there were all sorts of wry accents: a wisp of a cymbal glissando from Penn; Sussman evincing resonance from the piano lid; and light electronic touches, some of which worked, some of which were superfluous. Wouldn’t it be even more fun if Sussman gets another commission to keep the saga going – maybe that could go in the other direction, an apocalyptic scenario or a cautionary tale at least.

Roulette may be home to some of this city’s most impressive indie classical and avant garde programming these days, but their roots are in jazz, dating back to the Tribeca loft scene of the early 80s. The next jazz show there is on March 20 at 8 PM with the Tomeka Reid Quartet featuring Jason Roebke, Tomas Fujiwara, and Mary Halvorson playing edgy cello jazz; advance tix are $20/$15 stud/srs.