New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Min Xiao-Fen

Literally Otherworldly, Entertaining Sounds From Sarah Weaver

OK – you open your new album with an almost nineteen-minute drum solo. Career suicide attempt?

Actually, Gerry Hemingway’s performance of Sarah Weaver’s gamelanesque hailstorm of a composition is vastly more interesting than most drum solos, and in a way it sets the stage for the entertainment to come on her latest, deep-space inspired album Synchrony Series. It hasn’t made it to the usual spots on the web, although there are bits and pieces at Weaver’s youtube channel..

Bombast is happily absent; what we get is a a very subtle upward drive from a steady drizzle on the cymbals and some neat accents on what seem to be extremely detuned tom-toms. People with short attention spans will not be able to handle much of this music, but for those dedicated to what Pauline Oliveros called deep listening, it’s a treat. It’s very psychedelic, by the way.

Long before the lockdown forced musicians to use the web to collaborate, Weaver was patching in people around the world to create ensembles that otherwise never could have existed. There’s some of that here on the record. The second number, Symmetry of Presence features bass trombone legend David Taylor playing a ridiculously funny series of ideas through an increasingly surreal series of Weaver’s effects – although his vaunted extended technique really gets a workout before the electronics kick in. So much of this kind of music is mannered and fearful: this is 180 degrees from that.

An allstar eleven-piece ensemble play the darkly sprawling, practically forty-minute suite Interhere, a soundscape in the AACM tradition. Min Xiao-Fen’s spiky pipa first takes centerstage over Mark Dresser’s keening bass overtones and the massed horns of Taylor, trumpeter James Zollar, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, reedman Ned Rothenberg, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and oboeist Julie Ferrara. Denman Maroney’s piano introduces icy menace; it’s not clear what or who pansori-influenced singer Yoon Sun Choi is addressing, if at all. More than a hint of franticness; squirrelly dissociation; Tower of Babel chatter from all points; quasi-baroque lockstep; ominous swells on the low end; cold spring desolation fried into 5G microwave shriek: does this feel vaguely familiar?

The album’s disorienting fourth number is just the composer on vocals and Joe McPhee’s trumpet, running through a maze of effects, challenging both themselves and the listener to find a calm center. The final, practically hourlong epic was recorded by most of the large ensemble here, bolstered by an online cast utilizing samples from the Kepler space telescope.

These melodies, created by the orbits of stars and planets millions of miles away, have a stately, gamelanesque quality that validates Johannes Kepler’s theories about celestial harmonies, but almost droll oscillations as well. Is humor implicit in the physics of planetary and solar mass? It would seem so. The musicians respond to those motives with a playful aplomb, bringing to mind Gil Evans as his most celestial as well as Anthony Braxton in galactically tectonic mode – as well as the most primitive video games.

The long liftoff sequence midway through is a lot of fun; the outer-space drift elsewhere is just as entertaining, while the increasingly pensive exchange afterward is a sobering reflection on our ultimate place amidst the dust of stars. This magnum opus has a lot to get lost in.

Wadada Leo Smith Puts Out Another Riveting Civil Rights Epic

It’s hard to think of a more consistently relevant artist in any style of music than trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. Over the last seven years, he’s chronicled the Civil Rights Movement, celebrated the endangered ecology of our Great Lakes and National Parks, and suggested that we shouldn’t stop with occupying Wall Street: as the title of his 2013 album instructs, we ought to Occupy the World. His song cycle Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs – streaming at Spotify – is his most ambitious and often harrowing release since his epic 2012 Civil Rights era narrative Ten Freedom Summers. In general, this album is more atmospheric – and in that sense enveloping – maybe because it’s about a pivotal moment and the embryonic days of the movement it springboarded. Smith is playing a weeklong stand with a series of ensembles, including some of the artists on this album, at the Stone at the New School starting on June 25 at 8:30 PM; cover is $20.

As with Ten Freedom Summers, this album’s orchestration is lavish: Smith plays as part of the BlueTrumpet Quartet with Ted Daniel, Hugh Ragin and Graham Haynes, alongside the RedKoral string quartet and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. There are three singers: Karen Parks, Min Xiao-Fen and Carmina Escobar.

The opening instrumental prelude has a shattering, Shostakovian intensity: a horrified blaze of trumpets, sirening strings, disjointed anguish and yet, in the center of it all, a calm horn presenced which is probably Smith’s own portrayal of Parks’ determination to hold onto her seat and stand up for justice in the midst of assaults from all sides.

As the suspense mounts, there are keening highs over tense, expectant lows from the strings and slow exchanges with the brass. Maybe it’s the presence of Min Xiao-Fen and her spiky pipa, but the first vocal number, The Montgomery Bus Boycott has a big-sky Chinese pastoral vastness, a salute to solidarity and what it can accomplish.

Escobar’s fond but emphatic vocal matches the still sternness of the string quartet in The First Light, Gold, a shout-out to how Martin Luther King picked up the ball and ran with it after Rosa Parks got everything started. Vision Dance 2: Defiance, Justice and Liberation [Smith likes subtitles] is a slowly shifting tone poem for the whole ensemble plus samples from early works by Smith’s AACM collaborators Anthony Braxton on alto and Steve McCall on drums.

Parks sings Change It!, a soberingly poetic contemplation of democratic ideals clashing with reality, with an operatic intensity over mutedly pulsing and then resonant strings, akLaff flickering behind them. His majestically cynical, dismissive solo is sublime. Escobar takes the mic on The Truth, alternately spacious and insistent, then hands off to Min Xiao-Fen for No Fear, a hauntingly resonant setting of Rosa Parks’ own simple explanation of how she got up the courage to kick off a revolution.

More than a tinge of the macabre permeates the shivery, slowly unfolding Vision Dance 3: Rosa’s Blue Lake. Shalini Vijayan’s woundedly expressive viola solo introduces Min Xiao-Fen’s similarly moody vocal dramatics in The Second Light. Yet victory seems within reach as the trumpets enter in Vision Dance 4: A Blue Casa; slipsliding strings remind that it won’t be an easy task.

Parks sings the last of the songs, Pure Love, a celestially lingering look at the Greek concept of agape via MLK. Smith saves his most dynamic solo for The Known World: Apartheid amid disembodied string horror. The brief postlude seems like a Pyrrhic victory until akLaff deliciously gets the last word. This music is as rich and as troubling as the history it commemorates: like Ten Freedom Summers, you can get lost in it. Count this among the half-dozen best albums of the past several months.