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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Nick Zoulek, Rushing Past Willow, Music for Solo Saxophone

The advent of the saxophone in the music called Jazz has by now been subject to a rather long technical-expressive development. From the first players had a vision of the sound of the instrument generally far more robust and aurally more complex than so-called "legitimate techniques" would warrant. By the time of the bar-walking honkers such as Big Jay McNeely (and Illinois Jacquet before him) a richly overtoned sound had become a fully fleshed out way to play, and audiences tended to approve with enthusiasm.

On the art-avant fronts of modern jazz we note the rise of Albert Ayler, later John Coltrane, Dewey Redman and Evan Parker, to name some significant players. The harmonic fullness of the sax was activated by such pioneers with a consistency and performative rightness that gave the instrument new expressive life. One need only think of Coltrane's evolving approach to improvising on "My Favorite Things," where he would pivot in varying skips around a root, over time pinpointing the runs with harmonics on the soprano that became an ever more important element each time he soloed live in the years following the initial Atlantic release.

Such things became very much an expressive element of so many saxophonists who came after within the Hard Mainstream and the post-New-Thing streams of performativity.

In many ways a concentrated culmination of this school of saxaphonistration comes forward with a new album by Nick Zoulek, Rushing Past Willow (Innova  953). Twelve solo works for alto, tenor and bass saxophones are the order of the day. The music has evolved over the years from a number of distinctly singular improvisations. With continual performances each became further refined as a cogent Modern composition.

So though there is a definite Avant Jazz foundational element to these saxophone works they veer towards Modern Avant New Music in their formal trajectory.

Each piece is a working out of root-skips patterns that are tonal and sometimes modal yet are very much sound-colored by the palpable and very musical control Nick has over each saxophone. The music has often a whirling dervish quality, with continual spins around core motifs that via circular breath control and added vocal contributions become hypnotic and soulfully performative. The rich harmonics and overtones create multiple tones, primal harmonies, "orchestrational" simultaneities both aurally satisfying and timbrally stunning. Of course the bass sax gives Nick the most to work with for split tone possibilities, yet each sax has been fully pinpointed for an artistic exploitation of the multiple strands of possibility.

The more you listen, the more it becomes convincing. Zoulek's exacting control and imagination make of this an aural joy! Anyone interested in sound color and extended techniques will find this substantial I have no doubt. Start the trip with a first listen and you will see what I mean. Excellent!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Philippe Manoury, Third Coast Percussion, The Book of Keyboards

The body of New, Modern Music for percussion ensembles continues to grow and develop. Thanks to cutting edge ensembles like Third Coast Percussion composers can create new works with some confidence that they can get a proper hearing if conditions are right. The CD at hand is a fine example of the continued excellence of new works appearing in the present day.

Today's program gives Third Coast Percussion a chance to shine brightly on mallets. Philippe Manoury gives us two of his evocative compositions on The Book of Keyboards (New Focus Recordings FCR 187).

The two works cover a kind of linear modern territory that alternates between full out contrapuntal energy thrusts and more reflective, more intimate soundings. The sound colors possible in the mallet zone are clearly an important factor in the music we hear on the program. There is a relation to the gong and key tradition of Thailand, the Philippines, Bali, Java and so forth. Rather than tightly coil and repeat phrases a la minimalism this music is more through-composed and endlessly varying. It holds some lineal relation to early Cage-Harrison works for percussion. In the whole of those associations however there is a marked personal development to be heard. 

All that is what I bring to the table hearing this music. Turning to the liner notes I get a more formal and insider view of that is up. The liners talk of the extraordinary demands Manoury makes on the players. Part of the score supposes that the ensemble constructs an instrument via the specifications Manoury lays out in the score. The original specs were given by composer Xenakis: to allow choice and to be built from scratch. Manoury adds some other requirements. The result is the sixxen, which appears from time-to-time in the title score and happily so. The liners go on to talk about Manoury's post-dodecaphonically originated closeness to Boulez, and the sheer difficulty of parts of the scores in the execution realm. All this is quite helpful to take in the full impact of repeated hearings.

In the end, though, we are drawn in by the aural sensuality of the music, its vibrancy and liveliness. At times the music is nothing short of spectacular. As you listen you might ask yourself if this particularly demanding scenario is fully necessary for an appreciation of the music as it speaks to us. The answer is that is is the very thing that keeps the music from becoming a new world music per se or in other words a structural clone of world musics related to the sounds here. Without what Manoury brings to the notes and sequencing it would not be Manoury music. Perhaps that is obvious, but only after you have lived with this music with some intimacy over time.

So that is what strikes me. The music has great depth. It is difficult to play at times but not difficult to hear.The sensual pleasure of mallet instruments is at the forefront. The form the music takes is the identity marker and it is what sets it apart. All told, this is music of singular significance. And it will appeal to anyone predisposed toward the sounds we hear so nicely. The substance of the music makes it especially worthwhile. I recommend this album without hesitation. If you feel like you would like it, I have little doubt that you will!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Harry Freedman, The Concert Recordings

Every day brings more new music and when it is very good I am very happy. I must say that there can be incredible music in the offing, and without the review connection I would have missed some singular releases over the years. I feel like that after having heard a number of times Harry Freedman: The Concert Recordings (Centrediscs 23517).

It is a sort of mini-retrospective from a Canadian composer of true merit. Orchestral works from 1960-2003 get fine performances and give us an insightful look at the magic of Freedman's music. He lived from 1922 to 2005. Like some select others on the new music front he amassed a significant body of works (based on this vibrant sampling, anyway) and from where I sit was not given the recognition he deserved.

There is never a time to appreciate music of merit that is really "too late." The Concert Recordings gather together some CBC Radio broadcasts with a fine aural staging and worthy performances. It all sounds as great today as it might have back when these broadcasts aired.

As the liner notes for the CD assert and as my ears affirm, Freedman was a masterful orchestrator. The sound palette is ever of the most subtly brilliant sort, regardless of the stylistic variables of Freedman's music over time. There is mystery in the music, all informed by a Modernist expression but not all of a piece. There is change, development, constant creative thrust to be heard. Perhaps the orchestral palette could be at times described as sort of Neo-Impressionist? Not entirely always and not in some derivative way.

We get a full sampling of orchestral Freedman in a fine fettle. There is "Borealis" (1997), "Graphic IX" (2000),  "Indigo" (1994), "Manipulating Mario" (2003), and "Images" (1960). Nothing is insignificant. All is worthy of our concentrated attention.

I will not attempt to pinpoint stylistically the ins and outs of the works on the program. Your own ears will tell you what you hear and it is enough to say that there is originality and highly expressive results throughout.

This might be the sleeper of the year! What is clear is that Freedman was a master of the Modern Orchestral Arts! Put this one on and pay attention if you will! It is well worth your eartime.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Harold Meltzer, Variations on a Summer Day & Piano Quartet

I have had the pleasure of encountering the music of Harold Meltzer via a harpsichord work in an anthology.of harpsichord music I covered here some time ago (you can look it up by typing Meltzer in the search box at the top) and, most importantly, I reviewed his Naxos CD in 2010, which I loved (see the Gapplegate Music Review article of November 19, 2010 for that). Now it is time to turn to the new CD at hand, Meltzer's Variations on a Summer Day & Piano Quartet (open g records).

The liner notes to the album sum up the composer's recent development. Andrew Waggoner makes note of Meltzer's 2007-08 Brion (on the Naxos release I reviewed, see above) as the culmination of the influence of Stravinsky and Donatoni. The later works heard here, Waggoner continues, move in a more individual direction at the same time as they tip the hat to the Pastoral American composers of the '30s and '40s of last century, and also make a connection with Copland's beautiful "Piano Variations" and too his "Piano Quartet."

All this does not contradict what I hear in this music. I must admit I am not so familiar with Donatoni. Nevertheless I hear the other influences mentioned without there being a derivation. These works bask in their originality at the same time as they offer a lively, lyrical and cogently Neo-Pastoral way ahead if you will.

Both works are substantial and have a winning aura about them. The "Piano Quartet" has none of the heavy romantic Germanicism of Pre-Modern chamber music. It is agile and light of foot, with lots of unexpected twists and lovely turns within a forward momentum.

"Variations on a Summer Day" brings in a central solo soprano part interpreted sturdily by Abigail Fischer. It all glows with a lazy summer sun ahead and the nine-piece chamber mini-orchestra scores with some truly special notefull-orchestrational tone paintings.

There is, then, some very welcome breeze freshening-- there is a refreshing  and beautifully Modern music lyricism on display in this album. Harold Meltzer is a phenomenon. The disk shows us how that is! Wonderful.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Emanuele Arciuli, Walk in Beauty, Contemporary Piano Music

When we reach a certain point in our music listening every new work we hear adds to the understanding of the whole of what has been and will be. Before we grasp the continuity of music as a whole each new thing seems to have no apparent relation to another thing, sometimes.

Those who have come to the music well and drank deeply of its cooling nectar should welcome pianist Emanuele Arciuli and his Walk in Beauty (Innova 255, 2-CDs), a survey of Modern Contemporary New Music for piano that has thematic continuity. There are in fact two overarching thematic components, one an abiding evocative representation of nature, and the second, Native American culture through music composed or inspired by indigenous composers.

In all these shades of interrelated meanings we experience virtually the all of New Music possibilities side-by-side, Post-Minimalism, High Modernism, Radical Tonality, Expressionism, a kind of epistemological United Nations of contemporary styles, with a basic American center node.

Emanuele Arciuli shows his enormous interpretive acumen. Each work is given a surety of pianism, an extraordinary rightness of musical saying.

In the course of unravelling this two-CD set we encounter all the mystery and beauty the program promises. So there are individual identity pieces by the likes of Connor Chee, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Michael Daugherty, John Luther Adams, Raven Chacon, Martin Bresnick, Louis W. Ballard, Jennifer Higdon, Peter Gilbert, Carl Ruggles, Brent Michael Davids, and Talib Rasul Hakim. Some are well-known to us, others less so; some are Native Americans, some just give out with a natural ethos and foundational spirit-singing. All contribute uniquely and stand up alongside one another as a gathering of musical voices in a great saying.

And so this program fits itself into what contemporary music can be and is now. We no longer have to present a stylistic monolith that is meant to replace all with itself. No, this music creates its own bringing together to say in musical terms what can best be said in musical terms.

And for all that the saying is remarkable on the level of compositions and performances. With a coming regeneration of springtime this music stands as a sturdy and unflaggingly bright wayside directional beacon. It is however for any season, for all seasons. It points but it also supremely IS. Listen. Listen again.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Megumi Masaki, MUSIC4EYES+EARS

In the course of the daily rounds I get the mail, open up the packages of new CDs for review consideration, hear new ones and listen to ones in the regular listening-review rotation. Oh, and in the mornings first light and beyond, I review one or more albums while listening a final time to each. First listens determine whether I like something well enough to review and then it goes from there. So Megumi Masaki and her MUSIC4EYES+EARS  (Centrediscs CD & Bluray 24017).

Pianist Masaki and her program of contemporary sounds (and sights) made it past the first listen and in subsequent listens took ready shape before me. Like many CDs I end up reviewing a first listen gave me a basic understanding and appreciation but it was only in subsequent hearings that I understood fully what was in the offing.

Megumi Masaka's MUSIC 4EYES+EARS is as the title indicates. The accompanying press sheet spells it out: "These works are designed to explore diverse concepts, performance techniques and interactive technologies in live piano + multimedia performance. Central to this project is how the interaction of image. movement, text and sound can create new expressive potentials as a whole."

The program of compositions indeed address that. The CD contains two works by two Canadian composers, Patrick Carrabre and Keith Hamel. They are each a fascinating joining of elements in dramatic juxtaposition, soundscape-y at times and otherwise tonally adventuresome and freely combinatory. The piano has a central and notable role to play in all of this and Ms. Masaki does a beautiful job realizing the parts with a poetic pianism that brings the notes to vivid life. The visual multimedia elements of course cannot be apprehended on the CD, but the spoken, sung, electronically enhanced and instrumental parts all bring forth a very scenic, synethesially near-visual immediacy in their connotations.

So "Orpheus Drones," "Orpheus (2)." and "Touch" have a narrative quality to them as they also present a vibrant sound panorama fascinating in the sensual-aural realm alone. There is a second disc, a Blu-Ray program that includes "Touch" and three additional works. Unfortunately I do not currently have Blu-Ray capability but I imagine there are visual components to be seen and multi-channel audio? Based on the CD I can only imagine there would be much there of interest and fascination.

And the more I listen to the CD, the more I find it rather riveting. Some parts seem post-minimal, some post-Stockhausenian, some elsewhere altogether but beautiful in the piano and sound color narratives that consistently take place."Touch" for live computer processing and piano by Keith Hamel is quite something remarkable in its unfolding. Then again Carrabre's long two-part "Orpheus Drones" that includes Margaret Atwood's poetry has another take on the possible that is most definitely worthwhile and memorable.

Without knowing exactly how the Blu-Ray disk goes I nevertheless do not hesitate to recommend this album to you. The piano-not-piano interplay is not quite like anything being done out there today. The music holds its own.  It is new music with an emphasis on the NEW! So check it out if you will.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Gail Archer, A Russian Journey, Organ Music of the "Russian Five"

When an album presents to a listener like me a body of works I might only dream about and do not expect to find, it is an occasion. And then I listen with avid interest. That is what has happened on the recording at hand. It is organ music of the Russian Five! Plus one. That is, we have a selection of organ works by Mussorgsky, Cesar Cui, Ljapunow, Glasunow. Slominski and Alexander Schawersaschwili. I speak of the album by organist Gail Archer, A Russian Journey (Meyermedia MM17035).

Of course the Russian Five were supremely important original figures in the development of a genuinely independent Russian classical identity. Mussorgsky alone was a titan but none of them are at all explained away by the Romanticism in the air all over the West at the time. What is primary is a continuity with the classical tradition but a search for Russian expression and in the process an oblique path towards a Russian Modernism that only comes to its fullest flower with a Stravinsky, a Prokofiev and later a Shostakovich.

To keep all of this in mind as we listen to this program of organ music is to feel a creative turbulence and an expressive movement that only becomes clear in the teleology of time passing. The music we hear on A Russian Journey is very much in the organ music lineage of the later 19th Century. So we hear a relationship to the symphonic fullness of Franck and his school, yet also a clear pulling away with the Mussorgsky especially, and truly present in more or less subtle ways in the rest.

The critical contrapuntal influence of Bach can also be heard to greater or lesser degrees, especially in the various preludes, fugues and the toccata.

All of this music is not inconsequential and well worth repeated hearings. The organ version of "Night on Bald Mountain" is fabulous and revelatory. Who but Mussorgsky could craft such an expression when he did?  But any Russophile of a serious sort will welcome the entire program. The performances by Gail Archer have heart and expressionist aplomb.

In the end I recommend this very much. The audience may be self-selecting. You are either someone who wants to hear this for all the reasons you do, or you do not. In other words, this is probably not the album to transform you into an organ music lover nor does it lend itself especially to function as a first stab at Russian classical appreciation, though it could if you come to it as an organ enthusiast.

In the final round this program offers much to treasure.  Get it if it sounds like it has your name on it.