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Playful, Inventive, Outside-the-Box Romany-Inspired Jazz and Reinvented Classical Themes

Violinist Gabe Terracciano‘s album Three Part Invention – streaming at Bandcamp – is a lot of fun, with very inventive arrangements and ideas springboarding off a familiar three-piece Romany jazz setup: guitar, violin and bass. Guitarist Josh Dunn has his Django Reinhardt parts down cold but also gets to indulge in some nimble classical guitar and other styles while bassist Ian Hutchison holds the center, even when he’s in rapidfire mode.

Throughout the record, there are some welcome and unexpected interludes for solo bass, particularly in Dance for Jimmy a bluesy strut with less obvious Romany jazz influence and spare, surrealistically descending solos from guitar and violin

The most obvious Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli influence is in the trio’s take of Crazy Rhythm. Violin and guitar double each other in the undulating but motoring Fleche D’Or, with some breathtakingly shivery violin work from Terracciano.

The piece de resistance here is the austerely airy, lingering, tantalizingly brief arrangement of Erik Satie’s iconically haunting Gymnopedie No. 3. They rename the famous baroque tune Invention No. 4 as “Beautiful Love,” moving from a rapid stroll to fugal exchanges between guitar and violin, Terracciano taking Bach to Belleville.

A lot of people have taken Beethoven’s Pathetique to new places; this one is a mashup of the baroque with distant Celtic tinges.

Terracciano switches to viola for a stark, spacious take of Alex North’s love theme from the 1960 movie Spartacus, leaving behind waltzing nostalgia for more incisive terrain and an all-too-brief, poignantly dancing bass-guitar interlude. And Sweet Chorus comes across as an emphatic, strolling take of Sweet Sue with biting violin and expansively chordal guitar.

Imaginative, Energetic Jazz and Classical Mashups From Brother Duo Nicki and Patrick Adams

On their new duo album Lynx – streaming at Sunnyside Records – brothers Nicki and Patrick Adams come across as a classical/jazz mashup. Trumpeter Patrick typically carries an unhurried, lyrical melody line while pianist Nicki drives the songs forward with an often turbulent aggression and an erudite interweave of classical riffs. Jazz musicians have been having all kinds of fun with this kind of cross-pollination for decades; this one is packed with clever, unexpected connections and purposeful playing.

They open with Joe Henderson’s Shade of Jade, contrasting lively, upbeat trumpet with gritty, driving piano that slowly and subtly introduces a couple of Bartok themes until the Bulgarian influence is front and center…and then the duo bring it back.

Likewise, they reinvent Monk’s Pannonica by mashing it up with the Khachaturian Toccata and the Gigue from Bach’s Partita in Bb Major, trumpet soaring calmly over disjointed aggression from the piano which calms, and then returns with a leap.

Nicki gives John Coltrane’s 26-2 a coyly motoring Bach undercurrent as his brother chooses his spots. The duo’s brooding reinvention of Nick Drake’s Things Behind the Sun – or wait, isn’t that Al Stewart’s Life and Life Only? – is a quiet stunner.

These two are without a doubt the only ones to tackle Wayne Shorter’s E.S.P. while blending in bits and pieces of Gershwin and the Quartet For the End of Time – that’s Patrick sneaking in the Messiaen here.

The Gershwin influence lingers elegantly in the bouncily strolling Cool Blues, an original. They follow with a lively, Art Tatum-inspired take of Herbie Hancock’s Actual Proof and close by interpolating Debussy, Bartok and Satie with ragtime flair into the ballad I Wish I Knew. If outside-the-box entertainment is your thing, whether you’re a listener or a player, give this a spin.

Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

Brooding, Cinematic Piano Minimalism From Elias Haddad

Pianist Elias Haddad writes dark, pensive, frequently poignant songs without words that draw equally on minimalism and film music, with flickers of the Middle East. You could call him the Lebanese Ludovico Einaudi. Philip Glass is also a major influence. For fun, check out Haddad’s performance in the Jeida Grotto at Mount Lebanon – much as the humidity is doing a number on the piano’s tuning, you can tell how magical the sonics must have been in there that night. His new album Visions is streaming at Spotify. Lucky concertgoers in Ghazir, Lebanon can see him there with Noemi Boroka on cello at the town church on Jan 20 at 7:30 PM; the show is free.

The new album is mostly solo piano, Jana Semaan adding moody, lingering cello to several cuts. The opening track, Falling Leaves blends bell-like, calmly insitent phrases over stygian cello washes: it’s akin to Yann Tiersen playing Federico Mompou.

Alone, a rather menacing solo piano anthem, reminds vividly of Glass’ film work, notably the Dracula soundtrack. It makes a diptych with the similar but more emphatic Chasing Dreams. In Deep Blue, Haddad builds hypnotically circling variations over the cello wafting in from below.

Dream 6676 would make a great new wave pop song – or the title theme for a dark arthouse film. Eternal Tranquility juxtaposes spacious, distantly elegaic piano against distantly fluttering cello that sounds like it’s being run through a sustain pedal. Haddad makes a return to Glassine territory with Free, a somber waltz, and then Illusions and its tricky, Indian-inflected syncopation.

The cello lines over Haddad’s slowly expanding, twinkling broken chords in Last Heartbeats aren’t quite imploring, but they’re pretty close. The wryly titled Teenagers in Love comes straight out of the Angelo Badalamenti school of 50s kitsch recast as noir – it sounds suspiciously satirical. The album’s title track blends Satie angst and Ray Manzarek flourishes. Haddad closes with the sweeping, Lynchian theme Welcome Home.

A casual listener might catch a bar or two of this and confuse it with new age music, or the innumerable gothboy synthesizer dudes who are all over youtube, but it’s infinitely catchier and darker. Somewhere there’s a suspense film or a refugee documentary waiting for this guy to score.

Haskell Small Takes a Harrowing Journey Inward with His Latest Raptly Mystical Suite

Pianist Haskell Small‘s work is a prime example of the rewards of finding a muse and following that inspiration to the deepest reaches possible. He’s carved himself out a niche as a composer and champion of quiet, mystical, often viscerally haunting sounds. His 2014 album The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence is a masterpiece of spare, lingering, often chilling inwardly-directed themes. He’s also one of the world’s foremost advocates for the otherworldly, bell-like music of Federico Mompou. Last night at St. Malachy’s Chapel in midtown, the pianist played an unselfconsciously transcendent solo program comprising both his own suite A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours, along with the New York premiere of John Tavener’s Pratirupa. Small is reprising the program tonight, May 10 at 8 PM at the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession. 550 W 155th St. If there’s ever been music written for the spacious sonics of a sacred space, this is it. The concert is sold out, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it would be worth checking to see if there are any no-shows.

Introducing the program, Small – father to another individualistic, intense composer, Sarah Small – explained that as he saw it, silence doesn’t equate to the absence of sound. Rather, it’s an invitation to look inward, a proces that can be pretty scary. The new suite, due out later this year, follows the moods of a monastic day’s routine. It’s replete with moments of lingering woundedness, quiet torment and even despair, yet offers a surprising counterbalance to all that trouble. Small began it with one of his signature, poignant, plaintive belltone themes: Satie, and Messiaen, and Debussy in gamelanesque mode echoed vividly in the distance.. The music peaked with incisive cascades of eerie tritones. then receded back into uneasy, resolutely unresolved territory.

Small very cleverly cached a couple of catchy, unexpectedly upbeat motives – a muted fanfare of sorts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cesar Franck epic, along with a brief cathedral chime – within its architecture, and then deftly inserted variations on each throughout the suite. This made room for an unexpected optimism throughout an often harrowing journey. Shostakovich does this, sometimes Rachmanininoff too. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but as Small finally reached an almost reluctantly heroic crescendo, the payoff was not explosive but mighty all the same. And then he descended toward stillness again, gracefully, until a few final, increasingly spacious, weightily suspenseful chords that ended with sn almost imperceptibly whisper.

The Tavener turned out to be considerably different. On one hand, there was a clear connection to the first part of the program, considering ite bell motives and stately, strolling, sometimes folksy hymnal passages. On the other, it was as if Small was reminding that he can also play fiercely when he wants. And was he ever required to here! But he gamely tackled its thorny thickets of chiseling, Louis Andriessen-ish righthand riffs over an exhaust cloud of lefthand rumble, each of those interludes kicking off with an almost droll upward glissando. That was when he wasn’t mining the composer’s pensive, Chopinesque prelude segments for as much rapture and wonder as he could conjure. But ultimately, it wasn’t up to the level of Small’s own magic. He encored with a Bach invention, a well-chosen benediction. After journeying so far inward with the rest of the program, the experience was akin hearing it for the first time, a richly gentle offering of comfort and joy.

Haskell Small Plays a Shattering, Haunting Program on the Upper West

More musicians should do what Haskell Small does: he plays what he likes, and brings it to life, sometimes quietly, sometimes somewhat more boisterously, putting his heart and soul into it. He gravitates toward music that’s on the quiet and rapturous side: his performance of Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada here last year was absolutely riveting. Friday night on the Upper West Side, Small revisited that theme, bookending an absolutely shattering performance of his own suite The Rothko Room with music of Satie and Alan Hovhaness.

Kicking off the evening with Satie’s first suite for piano, Four Ogives, set the stage perfectly. The title refers to church windows; with a delivery that managed to simultaneously embody stateliness, a warm gospel tone and an understated tension, Small left no doubt that by 1886, when Satie wrote this, he’d already found plenty to be vexated about. The evening’s piece de resistance was Small’s original work, an uninterrupted theme and variations based onboth  the life of Mark Rothko as well as an immersion in the Rothko paintings in the Phillips Collection’s Rothko Room in Washington, DC. Centered around a mournful bell-like theme that immediately brought to mind Mompou, Small worked dynamics that ranged from minute to occasionally jarring, through an unexpected boogie-woogie flavored passage and another, longer, bitingly animatedly interlude that strongly evoked Small’s early mentor Vincent Persichetti. The depiction of a late-career resurgence for Rothko brought back a hopeful, once again gospel-tinted ambience, but that quickly dissolved into an increasingly spacious, imploring and then utterly defeated series of motives. Small quoted Rothko beforehand as declaring that the only emotions worth depicting are doom and suffering, then made good on that statement.

The pianist picked up the pace after that with a series of ruggedly pastoral solo works by Hovhaness, illustrative of that composer’s fixation with mountains (he saw them as transitional from material to the spiritual, halfway between earth and sky). The Lullaby from the piano sonata Mt. Katahdin (a peak in Maine which barely qualifies as a mountain) took shape as a steady, morose dirge, contrasting with the tricky tempo and cruelly challenging staccato octaves of the Macedonian Mountain Dance, a Balkan boogie of sorts. Small made a different kind of challenge, the contrast between low-register, resonant malletwork inside the piano and the steady righthand melody, seem easy.

“Now for some rock n roll!“ Small grinned, winding up the program on a defiantly celebratory note with the Hymn to Mt. Chocorua., from Hovhaness’ 1982 sonata portraying the New Hampshire hill where the Indian warrior it’s named for reputedly lept to his death rather than surrendering to the bounty hunters who’d chased him to the summit. With its blend of traditional Armenian kef music and savage, Lisztian block chords, it was quite a change from the mystical, somber mood Small had brought to life so vividly earlier, an atmosphere he returned to with the encore, a tender, lushly spacious version of Arvo Part’s minimalist classic Fur Elina. Small’s spring tour featuring these works continues on April 11 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Armen Donelian Reinvents Revolutionary, Haunting Armenian Classics

The first thing that comes to mind when listening to pioneering pianist Armen Donelian‘s new double album Sayat-Nova: Songs Of My Ancestors – due out on April 15 from Sunnyside – is why aren’t these songs world-famous? Thanks to Donelian, someday they might be. With his new arrangements for solo piano and trio with bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller, Donelian has reinvented over an hour and a a half worth of music by iconic 18th century Armenian composer Sayat-Nova. Celebrated as a national hero and a paradigm-shifting intellect whose plaintive, angst-ridden, often shattering melodies both resemble and predate Chopin by practically a century, Sayat-Nova is also renowned as a lyricist. He was a master of the kamancheh fiddle and the tar lute. His main gig was as a court minstrel for a local tyrant, a relatively cushy job, but one from which he was eventually fired. Within his compositions’ elegant, often enigmatic phrasing, there’s often a seething if restrained anger, and more frequently an absolutely depleted, wounded sensibility. We don’t know why Sayat-Nova got canned, or why he subsequently more or less abandoned music – at least professionally – joined the priesthood and later retired to a monastery. He may have known or figured out too much for his own good – or slept with someone he shouldn’t have.

Donelian’s feeling of kinship with Sayat-Nova is as strong as his passion for Armenian music in general, having played Armenian-influenced jazz for many years with reedman Souren Baronian, drummer Paul Motian and chanteuse Datevik Hovanesian. The operative question, obviously, is how to translate this music – written to incorporate the microtones of the fiddle and voice – for the rigid digits of the piano. Donelian does it chromatically. Yet while improvisation is the key to this whole thing – as it assuredly was when Sayat-Nova himself was playing it – Donelian keeps the main themes true to the originals. His arrangements and melodic variations maintain a similar consistency with the themes’ emotional content: this is a deep album. It’s not at Spotify yet, but watch for it after the release date.

The first of the double-disc set is solo pieces. What’s most stunning is how contemporary this music sounds even though some of it is 250 years old. The bittersweet lullaby Without You, What Will I Do? could pass for a rock ballad from the 70s, as does the gentler but considerably more jaunty I Call Lalanin (ostensibly a coded message to the composer’s secret love). The only concert recording here, Were I Offered Your Weight In Pearls switches up the time signatures as it recalls Dave Brubeck taking a stab at Chopin. The Polish composer is evoked – or, more accurately, prefigured – most vividly in the angst-ridden I’ll Never Know Your True Worth (the famous E Minor Prelude comes to mind).

Donelian brings out a similarly grim bitter edge and sense of longing to the plaintively crescendoing Where Do You Come From, Wandering Nightingale?, and the foresaken stranger’s lament I Have Traveled the Whole World Over. He blends elements of the Middle East and the neoromantic in Surely, You Don’t Say That You Also Cry? and Praised Among All Instruments. a late-career danse macabre that may foreshadow the composer’s downfall. The downright scariest of all the songs here is the Erik Satie-esque With the Nightingale You Also Cry, with its stunned, spaciously pitch-black sense of loss.

As you would expect, the second cd, with its jazz arrangements, is more rhythmically complex and improvisational. King of Cathay grows from a careful stroll with hints of Asian music to dancing variations; Your Headdress Is Silver And Silk builds out of an otherworldly, rapt intro with allusions to ragtime. You Are Golden And Exotic Brocade rises from a stately march to a snazzy, blues-tinged racewalk. The best of the trio pieces is the long, serpentine As Long As I Draw Breath, which foreshadows Satie again, Donelian bookending a long, loungey interlude with a morose waltz. There’s also a ringer here, My Sweet Harp, by a more recent Armenian composer, Khachatur Avetisyan, with a similar blend of creepy, stately and eventually Arabic tonalities. Donelian has stated that this is a lifelong labor of love for him, the high point of an already distinguished and original career and he’s probably right. He plays the album release show on April 4 at 7:30 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St.; $20 standing room tix are available.