Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Album Du Jour - A Review of the Reviews

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
- Winston Churchill
          So I spent a good long time today at work listening to Sarah Vaughan as I planned music for the upcoming season of Lent.  The music is good, and perhaps someday soon I'll have a review of it up here.  That day, however, is not today.  For those of you who have been faithfully keeping up with this project, either from its infancy or in the brief couple of months since, I appologize, but "The Album Du Jour" is going into modified service or hiatus mode.  Not sure which yet, but I've rather quickly come to the conclusion I can't keep up with this at this rate.  Financially, time management-wise, whichever.  I've learned and grown a lot from it so far musically, and don't plan on giving up on the whole thing entirely just yet.  However, within the past few months since the project was conceived a few things have changed in my life, all for the better, but this has just been forced a couple pegs lower in terms of my personal priorities.
          When I started this endeavor, I admitted that it would equate to about the same load as three music history/lit courses (one each in jazz, classical, and popular music,) and was excited that I would be able to set my own curriculum and agenda for them all.  I underestimated the enormity of the task at hand - in two months, I've done the equivalent of 20+ pages of writing for each of those three classes.  That's a semester right there.  At any rate, I think this is just the next natural step in that progression - setting my own course pace.  I still plan on reviewing albums, and most likely starting with purchases already made, but just at a more relaxed pace.  In retrospect, pushing through many of these in a day is unfair to the albums themselves.  By rushing through them, I haven't been giving myself time to properly digest the music.  The things I'm listening to and really latching on to are likewise getting pushed aside too rapidly to make room for tomorrow's listening assignment.  And too often, that's what it's coming down to - an assignment.  Something I have to get through just to keep moving forward.  I want to go back to enjoying new music - not considering it homework.
          So with that in mind, I hope to continue this project soon, but for now, I need to step back and smell the roses.  Reprioritize a bit, and just listen to the music.  I'm sorry if this comes as a disapointment, but I need to set this down for now.  More will be coming eventually though.  I promise.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

J. S. Bach: The English Suites - What's particularly English about them?

It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.
– J. S. Bach

            I think there is at least one composer or artist I associate with each piano teacher, and a different aspect of performance I gained from each of them along the way.  (Well, with the exception of the crappy grad student I got stuck with for my one semester of piano secondary in college; that’s another story.)  Bach and a certain gospel flair I attribute to Andrew Whitchger, who I studied with briefly and sporadically after the Betty van Camp era.  Past the scope and depth of the lesson series of Bastien I began learning under, Andrew put me on a solid diet of Bach’s two and three voice inventions.  As in, I was constantly working on at least one, without fail.  However it wasn’t until I started with Mike Springer that I was introduced to Bach’s other great collection of solo keyboard works – the French and English Suites.  Even then, it wasn’t until I saw a video on how to effectively and efficiently practice by Chick Corea using Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” that I really got into them.  By the way, any of you piano teachers should check out Chick’s video… if I could find it, I’d put a link up.  All I ran across is this snipet: .
Much like the Cello Suites from a few weeks ago, I feel somewhat at a loss not being familiar with the dance forms associated with the various movements of the suites presented here.  Also the lack of dynamic capabilities of the harpsichord limit the expressiveness any performer can breathe into the pieces.  That being said, the crystalline, fragile tone of the harpsichord is a beautiful medium for baroque counterpoint.  The clarity of lines is impeccable, despite the overly reverberant space in which this particular performance seems to have been recorded.  The artist’s clean and precise phrasing no doubt contributes greatly to the directness of the individual lines.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Highway 61 Revisited - An Epiphany... and not the one you probably think it is

3/1/11 – Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan)

Just because you like my stuff doesn't mean I owe you anything.
– Bob Dylan

            I’m still trying to figure out what I think of Bob Dylan.  I’ve never been a huge fan of his, but ever since I kept running across his stuff on the infamous Rolling Stone Magazine list I’m pulling most of the mainstream stuff off, I question whether I dislike Bob Dylan or just the caricature his portrayal has become since the heyday of his popularity.  This CD’s been in the car for a few days now and I’m coming to the conclusion that I may have been right in the first place.  I don’t particularly like Dylan.  I mean, I don’t hate it, but it just doesn’t appeal to me.
The theorist can try to rationalize it, the writer can get into the text, and the composer can take apart the layers musically, but none of them make a difference sometimes.  I like what I like, and I don’t like what I don’t like.  I know this will be an unpopular statement with some of the people reading this, but I’m also coming to peace with the fact that I really don’t have to like everything.  Be it Coltrane, Rolling Stones, Wagner, early Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, or Britney Spears (whose name probably doesn’t even belong in the company of the others,) they just aren’t my tastes.  And I don’t have to keep justifying it.  I’d like to for my own sake, but if I can’t, I can live with that now too.
I’m not quite ready to write off blues rock or folk rock categorically yet, but I’m starting to lean that way.  This seems like an extension on what I wrote on the Stones’ Exile On Main Street, but musically, there’s nothing much here.  Not that I need commercialized, mainstream manufactured hits, but there’s nothing wrong with a catchy guitar hook either.  Three-chord rock doesn’t grab me.  Or one chord blues, like “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”  Not that I dislike blues either, but someone like Stevie Ray Vaughn or B. B. King I feel take the basic blues structure and use it as a vehicle for great playing, both technically and emotionally.  I don’t get the same virtuosic connection from Dylan.
Part of me wants to appreciate this album for what it was when it was, but I can’t.  I wasn’t there in ’65.  Dylan is as much history to me as Stravinsky, and part of me objectifies him as such.  I appreciate Stravinsky’s contributions to music as a whole and I like his music.  I could take or leave Dylan.  More likely leave him.  On that note, I’m contemplating the first round of edits to my year-long schedule.  Should I go through and preemptively cut albums I think I’ll be predisposed to dislike?  (At this point, mostly Dylan and the Stones, because there’s a lot of them on the list.)  Should I push through them because they’re supposedly influential?  Or move them aside in favor of some of the many great albums I can’t fit into a single year?  Let me know what you think.  Right now, I’m pretty happy with the list until late April, but Blood on the Tracks is currently scheduled for then…

Next week –
Abbey Road
(The Beatles)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker - You know it. You love it. You know you do.

Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.
– Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

            Like many of you, I’m sure, listening to The Nutcracker brings back childhood memories.  For me, it was most often the Southold Dance Company’s annual production, and on the occasion that on of my grade school classmates was starring as Clara (which happened more often than you would expect,) it became an opportunity for us all to cram in the yellow busses and head to the Morris Civic Auditorium for a performance.  I remember the thrill of the spectacle first and foremost, had at one time aspired to portray Drosselmeyer, despite never studying dance in my life, and as the years went by, beginning to greatly miss the live orchestra at the matinees where the hall was packed with schoolchildren as opposed to full-price ticket holding patrons.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a live performance of this piece.
            Just as I was initially drawn into the piece by the fantasy and grandeur of the visuals, at this point in my musical journey (and now listening to it without the benefit of a visual,) Tchaikovsky’s command of the orchestra is as remarkably impressive.  While the first act seems to stall musically and dramatically at times to make room for plot development, the dances of the second act are a thing of beauty to listen to.  And the low points of the first act are on the level of the high points of many a lesser piece.
Tchaikovsky’s  harmonic language is notably complex, even for a late romantic, and his flamboyant orchestrations make good use of the relatively small orchestra by the standards of his contemporaries.  I knew the celeste was prominently featured in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, but I didn’t know he was the first classical composer to write for it.  Likewise, his inclusion of women’s chorus in the finale of Act I is stunning.  I feel that most of what I’d potentially have to say is redundant – this is one of the few pieces I assume everyone else is familiar with to some degree, and remarking on the subtlety of the tambourine in the Arabian Dance or the dark, rich horns of the Waltz of the Flowers would be stating the obvious.
            Once again I find myself at the end of the month, and going back to recap this past month.  It seems more hit-or-miss than January, but there were definitely stand-out pieces along the way.  I apologize if my writing style has been lacking at times; I’m a composer and a theorist at heart, and while I enjoy the writing process, that seems to be the limiting aspect of this project.  I can listen to and contemplate an album a day, but getting my thoughts down is grueling at times.  Like I keep saying, I appreciate all of your comments, even when I don’t get to responding on them, and they keep me going at times.  That and sheer stubbornness at other times.

Best of February - Sky Blue (Maria Schneider)
Best Classical - Chopin: Nocturnes
Best Jazz - Mood Swings (The Swingle Singers)
Best Mainstream - Rage Against the Machine
Honorable Mention - The Marshall Mathers LP (Eminem)

Tomorrow – Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Trombone Master - No Lie!

2/27/11 – The Trombone Master (J. J. Johnson)

Sometimes you need to stand with your nose to the window and have a good look at jazz. And I've done that on many occasions.
 – J. J. Johnson

Little known fact – I, for a brief and equally futile time in college studied trombone.  This is not to say that I at any point considered myself to be a trombonist.  Rather, as a music composition major that had already passed his piano proficiency exam, I was encouraged to “float” my instrumental secondary classes – that is to take a different instrument.  The idea was that, as a composer, this would give me a feel for the different instruments that at one time or another I would be writing for.  In practice, this turned out to be a waste of my time and that of the poor teaching fellows that had to deal with me.  While I appreciated the exposure, the practicality of picking up a new instrument every semester or so and studying it at the largest music school in the country is absurd.  Had I to do it all over again, I probably should have stuck to organ or mallet percussion or something like that.  Ah well,
Listening to J. J. Johnson’s collection of works gathered here, I’m taken back to those days at UNT.  Trombones, while an integral part of the jazz large ensemble, are the most rarely featured member of the ensemble.  Especially in bebop and post-swing music, the forte of the UNT jazz program, the slide mechanism was simply too cumbersome and lacked the agility of the valved or keyed winds.  Johnson, however defies that assessment and creates such fluid melodies with the deft skill of any saxophonist or jazz trumpeter.  And man, can he blow!  When he digs into the opening track here, “Misterioso,” he holds his own opposite coronetist Nat Adderley.  His facility with the slide trombone is unlike anyone I have heard before.
While Johnson is considered to be one of the few bebop trombonists, his sense of harmony and rhythm almost feel cool or post-bop.  They play closer to the tonal center, and the notes have plenty of time to “sing” on their own.  For example on the mild swinging “Laura,” his articulation says “bebop,” but his harmonic language says “swing era” all the way.  The combination of the two styles works rather well I must say.
“What is This Thing Called Love” seems to feature Johnson less (although he does solo for a brief bit,) and moreso on the whole ensemble, delegating solos also to his pianist and drummer.  The latter goes on a bit too long, but it’s the very rare percussion solo that keeps me rapt at attention.  “My Old Flame” starts with a luscious piano solo before Johnson joins with an equally smoky and rich tone.  And of course, if you hadn’t pcked up on my affinity for ballads, then you may not as readily understand why I love this piece.
“Blue Trombone” is obviously the focal point of the album (given both it’s central location in the listing nd the sheer length – easily 3 times or so easier to find.  Still it’s glorified 12-bar blues structure just seems a bit over-played at times.  “What’s New,” however, brings the ballad a new twist, at least timbraly.  Johnson’s solo through both the head and solos thereafter is exclusively performed with a muted trombone.  (Cup I believe, but don’t quote me on that.)  The slightly more “stuffed” tone seems to age the instrument artificially, as if one were listening to the performance over an old RCA victrola.
“Satin Doll” has never been one of my favorite tunes, and there is nothing in this performance that’s going to change that status any time soon.  The treatment is “correct” enough, but not earth shattering.  It just lacks depth I guess.  Not so with “Cry Me a River.”  While faster and more aggressive than the ballad I’m used to hearing this tune as, it works remarkably well here.
The closing track, simply entitled “Goodbye” is a brief piece, and a genuine send off for the album.  Again, the muted trombone sings a gentle tune, this time accompanied by bass, drums, and vibraphone.  A lovely piece and a soft, gentle end to the recording.
Perhaps if I had been exposed to J. J. during my semester of trombone, I would have accomplished more that semester.  Perhaps not.  But at any rate, hearing it now increases greatly my respect for this oft neglected instrument in the jazz realm.  A solid work here by another true virtuoso on his instrument.  

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bizet: Carmen - One of the ABC's of Opera

2/26/11 – Bizet: Carmen

As a musician I tell you that if you were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, the supernatural, there would no longer be the means for writing one note.- Georges Bizet

Listening to the opening prelude of Carmen, two things come to mind.  First off, why is this a “Prelude,” and not an “Overture?”  Second of all… I’ve heard this before.  It’s like the Nirvana album from last month – I’ve been subconsciously exposed to so much of the music here that it seems familiar.  I knew "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" coming in; one of the most well-loved arias in operatic literature.  But the carnival theme, the toreador’s song, and the theme of fate as it is so called, they are all as equally recognizable.  Bizet’s flamboyant writing is a far cry from the heavy romanticism of Wagner, but its lighter tone in no way undermines the drama contained within his musical phrases.
Once again, I confess to taking a shortcut here – while I considered reviewing a “highlights” collection from the opera, I opted instead to listen to the whole show, albeit an English translation.  It’s hard enough going from a staged production to an audio recording and losing the visual.  Once you remove the language component as well, it might just as well be instrumental.  And while in a perfect world, I’d be watching a performance (live, since we’re dreaming) in French with supertitles in English, listening to a CD in the English will have to suffice for today.
Dramatically, Carmen is a compelling story, far ahead of its time in its portrayal of deeper three-dimensional female characters, and (contrary to type,) shallow and dim male roles.  Likewise, Carmen depicts a much more pedestrian lifestyle than most opera – instead of the comings and goings of nobles and their courts, the titular role is that of a gypsy vagabond (who seduces and outwits ranks of the Spanish army.)  In fact, the material is often compared to Puccini’s La Boheme for that same reason.  While it’s nice to take opera off its lofty pedestal from time to time, I confess, I also miss the grandeur of Wagner’s gods and their exploits of epic proportions.  I guess I can’t have my cake and eat it too.
Musically, Bizet’s score seems to owe more to Chopin and Brahms than to Mahler and Wagner.  His orchestrations are more subtle than the massive forces required for the latter, but at the same time, you can sense the shifting roles within the orchestra in this later romantic work.  The upper winds are given the same level of prominence as the strings, and Bizet’s timbral palate is far more varied than the classical era composers who had gone before.  Simmilarly, the harp and flute duet opening the third act is strikingly beautiful..  His vocal writing, in particular the quartet in the second act and the opening chorus of the third is rather complex for opera, and his orchestrations are elegant and effective.
Once again, I seem to be at a loss – not having seen the staged production, there’s a lot of the experience I know I’m missing, and tackling individual elements seems to daunting because there’s so much to address.  Therefore, once again, this posting ends up being somewhat brief – for both a lack of things to say and no sense of where to begin.

Tomorrow – The Trombone Master (J. J. Johnson)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Rage Against the Machine - Rap-Metal with a message

Music is not some stuffy college lecture ... On a good day, Rage Against the Machine is not able to just rock you like a hurricane, but also to fuel the engine with indignation and the band's activist convictions.
– Tom Morello

One of the great things about young people is that they do question, that they do care deeply about justice, and that they have open minds.
– Zach de la Rocha

Ok, confession time – I had heard of Rage Against the Machine, but never listened to any of their music until “Bulls on Parade” was featured on Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock.  At which case I developed a profound respect for Tom Morello and his innovations on the electric guitar.  Since then, I’ve been looking forward to getting to this album, if for no other reason than to experience the wide array of colors Morello paints with his guitar.  The more I read about the group, the more I also respect their political and social activism, in that they put their money (and their time, and their energy) where their mouth is.
To that end, it is impossible to separate RATM from the rage.  Both the tone of their lyrics and the music itself are a protest against the establishment.  Unfortunately, the lyrics are often too simplistic to delve deep enough into the issues the band tries to tackle.  Instead, they come across as sound-bite sized quips, resulting in the angry screams of a rebel without a cause.  The bitter rage is communicated well, but not as often what we’re angry about or any proposed solutions to the problem.  Granted, the whole “screamo” rock movement has never been my thing, so I’m most likely more prone to dismiss se la Rocha’s texts, which I have admittedly not looked up, but am merely going off of multiple listenings.
A brief note about the other two members of the band – bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk are similarly incredible musicians, and their contributions should not go unnoticed, despite the fact that their role designates them to the background more often than not.  The fusion of hip funk with hard metal is a difficult one indeed, but these two provide a sturdy background that merges both elements masterfully.  The hard driving beats often transition transparently in and out of a mild form of swing, which I think is responsible for lightening some of the otherwise plodding hard rock/metal grooves well.
However, Morello makes me love love love this album.  To the point that I not only want to pick up Evil Empire (the band’s second album,) but also get into his work with Audioslave and the other outfits he’s been involved with.  The man is a technician with a better sense of molding his sound and tone than most keyboardists, a soloist that rivals many jazz greats, and has a fusion sensibility of redefining styles I’ve never seen.  Not going into a track by track on this album because I could go on for hours (and don’t have the time,) but I keep coming back to the cut “Know Your Enemy.”  The synthy 5ths of the introduction are crazy-good hook material, and the aforementioned semi-swing of the bass works incredibly well.  I think I’m wearing down the CD going over the solo from 3:15-4:02 on the track.  It’s insane.
I actually have to amend my opening statement; “Wake Up” grabbed me before Guitar Hero – in the closing scene of “The Matrix.”  Given the band’s revolutionary bend for social justice and political reform, I can’t imagine a better fit for that particular movie.  This is of course, deemed “car worthy,” and has been in the CD changer for a week now.  Not planning on moving it out anytime soon either.  Maybe when I get to Audioslave…

Tomorrow – Bizet: Carmen

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Trident - Harpsichord, Celeste, and Piano... Oh My!

2/24/11 – Trident (McCoy Tyner)

The reason for longevity is truth and honesty, and I think we that we possessed that and it manifested itself in our art form.
– McCoy Tyner

            Two words I never thought I would use in the same sentence – “jazz” and “harpsichord.”  Yet here they are – Trident’s opening track begins with McCoy Tyner, unaccompanied, creating some legitimate grooves on this antiquated instrument.  He is soon joined by the other two members of the trio, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Elvin Jones.  Soon he shifts gears back to his native piano, but this highly modal opening track, “Celestial Chant,” feels equally at home on both instruments.  In fact the nuances in tuning on the harpsichord give the introduction in particular an out-of-the-ordinary yet pleasant ring (almost literally.)  After a brief solo by Carter, Tyner returns again to the harpsichord finding a balance between the instrument’s inherent fragility and an aggressive accompaniment style.
            “Once I Loved (O Amor Em Paz)” instead begins with Tyner on celeste.  While not as effective on the preceding harpsichord track, the change in tone is nice.  Once again, he quickly shifts back to piano.  His stylings here are significantly more flamboyant here than on the previous track, but fit the uptempo bossa nova groove well.  Tyner’s soloing is often compared to that of Coltrane, his longtime collaborator throughout the 60’s.  In fact, Tyner played for Coltrane’s magnum opus reviewed last month, A Love Supreme.  I find his work here to me more modal, and his playing cleaner (although that may just be because he’s a pianist, not saxophonist.)  When he returns again to the celeste for the codetta to the tune, the lines just seem to float away into the atmosphere.
            “Elvin (Sir) Jones,” being named after the trio’s drummer, feature the percussionist prominently.  After a brief solo through the introduction, Jones’ 60 second solo flight begins around the 3 minute mark into the track.  Nothing too obnoxious (as jazz drum solos can occasionally become,) but a good solid showing before a brief head out.  Sadly, there’s not much more substance to the tune – just a vehicle for Elvin it seems.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
            “Land of the Lonely” begins with timer on both harpsichord and celeste – again, a welcome change of tone, but starting to become a bit gimmicky and overplayed perhaps.  The harmonic/melodic relationship is once again decidedly modal in that it prominently features planed parallel fifths in its statements of the tune.  Jones once again gets the brief spotlight for a while, but McCoy carries the bulk of the tune once again.  This time, his return to harpsichord ventures a bit further out of the box than on the opening track.  Then of course, the celeste also returns for a final statement of the melody.  I wish in the process of this tune in particular, Tyner could have spent some time soloing on either the celeste or the harpsichord as opposed to simply using them as bookends for the tune.  That would make for some interesting jazz…
            “Impressions,” a Coltrane original, keeps Tyner on the piano throughout for this one, and has more technical “bebop” elements than most of the previous tracks on the album.  Nevertheless, I find it easier to listen to than Coltrane or other bebop horn players.  Maybe it’s because as a pianist it’s easier to marry the solo lines to the specific voicings, extensions, and harmonies Tyner’s going for, I don’t’ know.  Maybe it’s because the harmonics are clearer on the piano.  Either way, it’s just not as much work to listen to.  Carter’s solo work here is equally commendable, even if not given equal room to develop.
            Thelonius Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear,” brings the album to an interesting close.  As the only ballad on the recording, I for once didn’t miss hearing one to this point.  Also, the decision to reserve the drummer until the second section of the tune seems unnatural.  The absence is too striking, and even when he does come in, it just feels a bit too sparse.  All in all, I find this to be a tremendous album.  Of course there are things I would have liked to have heard a little differently, but if the album were perfect, I’d have so much less to write on…

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ewald: Brass Quintet #3 - breaking the brass mold

In 'thinking up' music I usually have some kind of a brass band with wings on it in back of my mind.
– Charles Ives

            For some reason, brass ensembles always sound British to me; perhaps it’s some subconscious connection of the medium to military ensembles, I’m not sure.  Yet Victor Ewald, who for a long time was credited as the first to write for the modern brass quintet, was a civil engineering professor from St. Petersburg, Russia.  I for one would never have guessed listening to his music.  His writing is restrained and more lyrical than that of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmannanov, and his tonality and harmonic treatment seem more classical than late romantic/early 20th century.  Perhaps it’s closer to Moussorgsky or Borodin, but I for one jump to the other three first when I consider the great composers of Russia.
            One of the striking characteristics of Ewald’s quintet is the emphasis on the trombone and horn as opposed to the trumpets; by placing the melodies more prominently in the mid-low brass (and occasionally the tuba,) the tone is softened considerably, both because the horn’s conical bore and just the range of the instrument.  Along these lines, Ewald achieves the coveted changes in texture that are so rare in brass ensembles.  In fact, when the fanfaring trumpets take their prominent place throughout the second movement, they are a welcome exception, as opposed to the rule they so often are.
            The third movement begins to take on some of the harmonic qualities I for one more readily associate with the romantic era; the writing becomes less homophonic and instead the melody and harmonic accompaniment are treated as separate elements.  While the melody is once again in the trumpet on a somewhat regular basis, it stays primarily in its lower register.  The lower voices often simulate an arpeggiated pattern, as one would find in a Chopin nocturne.
            The final movement once again showcases the balance and well-roundedness of the ensemble.  With a mix of textures, counterpoint and chorale, and a truly equal hierarchy of the brass family, this lively finale caps off a truly enjoyable piece.  Again, I think Ewald’s tonal language is less than innovative, but his technique within that framework is extraordinary.
            A brief side note – in an effort to round out my musical experience, I’m making an effort to attend more live music throughout the year.  In fact, as I think I mentioned in the introduction to this project, the idea was spawned by a performance from the Melrose Symphony Orchestra of Brahms’ double concerto for violin and ‘cello.  A couple weeks back, I had the pleasure of seeing one of my favorite jazz vocalists perform; the remarkable Tierney Sutton.  In a couple days, Kurt Elling will be performing here in Cambridge, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.  To top it all off, this morning I discovered a gift from a lovely couple here at the church – a pair of tickets to the Melrose Symphony’s upcoming premiere of a newly commissioned concerto for bassoon and clarinet, which has completely made my day.  Perhaps a live music blog supplement may be in order some time soon…

Tomorrow –  Trident (McCoy Tyner)
Next week – J. S. Bach: English Suites (selections TBD)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Exile on Main Street - What is it that I'm just not getting?

2/22/11 – Exile on Main Street (The Rolling Stones)

Mick Jagger is the perfect rock star. There's nobody more perfect than Jagger. He's rude, he's ugly-attractive, he's brilliant. The Rolling Stones are the perfect rock group -- they don't give a ****.- Elton John

I’m noticing a similarity in approaching this particular album to listening to Billie Holliday or The Beatles – while Exile on Main Street is a huge and influential album, the very things that made it innovative and groundbreaking are influential; to the point their influence has pervaded the mainstream to the point they seem mundane.  This is a good album – perhaps a great album, but through today’s lens, I feel compelled to just dismiss it as a run of the mill early 70’s rock CD, and I feel I should know better than that.  On the other hand, I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to over-accentuate what I like about any given album and gloss quickly over what I don’t enjoy as much, so maybe now’s a good time to start being a little more critical.
            I appreciate the many influences found here – the elements of gospel-inspired soul, the rockabilly horns, the southern roots rock found in a few tunes, even a bit of latin jazz from time to time.  I just feel others have done it all better.  (Blood, Sweat and Tears, anyone?)  At the root though, this is basic four-chord rock.  Pardon me – some of it’s three chord rock, like “Torn and Frayed.”  The dressings are changed from time to time but the substance (or lack thereof,) is consistently the same.  Even the favorable reviews of the album refer to it as a “worn down, weary sound.”  I would take that a step further – the sound is often lazy and/or sloppy.  The horns aren’t as together as they should be, the mixing is muddy and unfocused.  I fail to see the draw.
            Since I’m at this point mercilessly ripping into this allegedly great album, I should probably point out that it contains no recognizable hit singles.  No “Sympathy For the Devil,” or “Start Me Up,” no “Paint it Black,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” or “Brown Sugar.”  Someone please tell me, why is this album so revered?  What am I missing?  Furthermore, what Stones should I be listening to instead?  It’s like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme all over again; this album I had put on such a high pedestal, when it failed to deliver, I’m left asking “what’s wrong with my approach or palate that I don’t see what everybody else holds so dear?”  Mabe it will be another Kurt Elling moment, and some time next month or a few years from now, it’ll click and I’ll recognize the genius… but I’m not there yet.

Tomorrow – Ewald: Brass Quintet No. 3 in D major
Next week – Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan)

Bernstein: "Kaddish" Symphony #3 - The Jewish Stravinsky

Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.
 - Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein has been near the top of my list of favorite composers since I first heard West Side Story.  His particular brand of neoclassicism places him in line as a musical descendant of Stravinsky – perhaps the highest composer on that list.  His sense of Jewish spirituality likewise feels similar to that of Stravinsky’s love of the Orthodox church.  The “Kaddish” is Bernstein’s answer to the Requiem Mass – a Hebrew prayer for the souls of the dead, and Bernstein’s setting interpolates an English language narration with texts taken from the Hebrew liturgy.  The result is a work somewhere in between his Mass and Chichester Psalms; a work of beauty and divine inspiration with a certain amount of commentary and liberty taken with the theology and structure of the liturgy around which it was based.  Ironically enough, this “Jewish Requiem” of sorts never mentions the word death anywhere within its text.
            The character of the Symphony is often one of both lament and anger at God; a sentiment much more comfortable in the Jewish faith than in most Christian relationships with God.  The text also spans three languages; the English of the narration, Hebrew congregational responses in the liturgy, and additional prayers sung in Aramaic.  Structurally, it does not feel like a symphony, as there is too much emphasis on the text and choral aspects as opposed to the strictly musical elements.
Bernstein’s harmonic language is often polytonal, but in my opinion, lacks the refinement of his great Chichester Psalms.  Occasionally, he reaches out into 12-tone writing, but the result is more accessible than Schoernberg’s atonality; a balance that I would academically wish to investigate further if I had the resources to do so – namely the time, patience, and access to a manuscript of the score.  The lyrical passages of the second movement in particular soar beautifully, but the fast, rhythmic, percussive qualities idiomatic to Bernstein’s writing are more subdued here, no doubt due to the more somber nature of the text.  Granted, this is completely understandable, but I miss them nonetheless.
            While I enjoy listening to this moving piece of music, I find less value in it than in many of Bernstein’s other works.  Perhaps it is because I’m less familiar with it than others, such as the Chichester Psalms in particular, but the restrained energy of the piece seems often to lead to a lack of passion.  I realize that a prayer service for the dead necessitates a certain amount of somberness, but even as such, it lacks the sweeping beauty of many of the great Requiems that have gone before; Faure, Brahms, and Verdi being the first to come to mind.  Perhaps upon further listening, I would develop a greater appreciation for the work, but alas, examining one album a day for a year does indeed have it’s drawbacks in addition to its merits…

Tomorrow – Exile on
Main Street
(The Rolling Stones)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Birth of the Cool - No further explanation needed

2/20/11 –  The Birth of the Cool (Miles Davis)

I know what I've done for music, but don't call me a legend. Just call me Miles Davis. - Miles Davis

Miles Davis is the Beetles of jazz – there’s a different sound to each era of his work, and they’re all brilliant in their own respects while still completely different.  Likewise, I think there’s a Miles sound for everyone.  I, like most, put Kind of Blue at the top of my list, but need to branch out from there into some of his other stuff.  (Oh, and Bitches Brew is at the bottom of his stuff I’ve heard so far.)  This hits a nice spot – post bebop “cool jazz” as the name states.  The hard swinging lines of bop are taken at a slower pace (where you can actually appreciate them without having to squint with your ears to pick up on every last grace note.)  Likewise, the Miles Davis Nonet strikes a perfect balance between the intimacy of a chamber group and the versatility and power of a big band.
“Move” is closer to a bebop tempo than most on here, but it provides the energetic kick to get the album moving off to a good start.  Max Roach throws down some mean drum solos, often overlooked in the jazz realm.  “Jeru” brings things back a bit into something closer to a Glenn Miller-style big band sound, which is in its own right impressive.  “Moon Dreams” hits my usual ballad nerve – focused more on the rich trombones than the upper horns.  Also, the usage of tuba sticks out here in particular, but works well; its French horn-like rounded tone fits well as opposed to the more present bass trombone.
“Venus De Milo,” is another iconic track with a catchy little melody and some descent trumpet work from Davis.  As I read someone say the other day, Miles was a great innovator – perhaps the best.  His chops as a performer, though were not his forte.  They were good, but not anywhere near the genius of his creativity.  “Deception” follows suit, as another great tune for the whole band.
“Godchild” however, switches gears.  The tune itself is a little more than a shout chorus, leaving lots of space for some sweet solos.  The balance seems shifted more toward the brass than the saxophones; perhaps a direct result of being fronted by a trumpeter.  “Boplicity” is similarly driven by solos, including what I believe to be the album’s first solo appearance by pianist John Lewis.  Just from the name alone, I can imagine this (and the following tune, “Rocker”) as being originally written as bop charts, to be taken at approximately twice the speed performed here.  Perhaps I just need to drink more caffeine before functioning at a high enough level to appreciate good bebop jazz.
Israel” takes a slightly more modal shift than most of the other tracks here.  Perhaps it’s a precursor to Kind of Blue, I’m not sure.  Speaking of comparisons with that great album, I find it strange that the sound of Miles’ trumpet throughout the album is left open – there’s not the harmon muted sound most closely associated with Davis.  I kind of miss it, but think it may have been an appropriate decision for the tunes on this particular album.
“Darn That Dream” features the only vocal work on the opus, but to be honest, I feel it takes away significantly from the album.  Kenny Hagood’s tone is so dark and smooth it sounds forced; like every parody you’ve ever heard of a cheap Vegas lounge singer.  The tune and arrangement are fine, but perhaps it’s just the choice of singer that disagrees with me.
It’s funny, the second time I was listening through this album, I was grabbed by the next track – again, a total departure from what had come before, but still hip and interesting.  The peculiar thing was, there are no more tracks on this album.  ITunes kept playing into the next album on its list.  Bitches Brew.  Perhaps my tastes are again shifting…

Next week – The Trombone Master (J. J. Johnson)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Leontyne Price Sings Barber - Beautiful Voice, Beautiful Music

Born of what I feel. I am not a self-conscious composer.
- Samuel Barber

            I grew up as a singer with Barber, despite not knowing any of his music until I moved to Texas my junior year of high school.  Yet, as I never formally studied voice until that point, that’s kind of where the ball starts rolling.  I remember first encountering his song cycle “Hermit Songs” piecemeal, through various solo and ensemble competitions, first as accompanist, and then as a singer, starting with “A Monk and His Cat,” followed by “The Crucifixion.”  The latter of these I believe was in my audition repertoire for college of music acceptances.  The quirky lyrics and equally peculiar accompaniments intrigued me as a young and budding composer, which I’m certain was fueled by my voice teacher (who was married to the head of the composition department where I would shortly be studying.)  Regardless, this is the first time I’ve heard the collection as one unit.
            “Hermit Songs” is a 10 song cycle whose pieces are both clever and irreverent at times, but also beautiful and naturally flowing in their form.  And oh yeah, pretty short.  Four of the 10 songs are under a minute with the longest of them at under three and a half.  Price’s dark, rich dramatic soprano voice seems perfectly suited to them, and I actually think they may have been specifically written with her in mind.  (Price, with Barber at the piano, gave the premiere performance of the work at the Library of Congress.)
Like the oeuvre Carmina Burana, “Hermit Songs”’ text is taken from the musings of monks from the 8th to 13th century and translated by a number of Irish and English poets into modern English.  Unlike Carmina, of course, which remained in the Old Latin and other derivative, archaic languages originally written.  Ranging on topics from the monk’s playful relationship with his cat to the promiscuity of a forbidden woman, there are the occasional religious commentary as well, such as in the aforementioned “The Crucifixion.”  As a composer, Barber was a gateway into contemporary vocal composition; his tasteful use of cluster notation at times, unmetered vocalese, and expanded sense of tonality remain approachable but also outside of the common practice box.
The next few tracks on the album are not taken from an particular collection, but again feature Barber at the keyboard and Price’s luscious voice.  “Sleep Now” is a beautiful lullaby, and “The Daisies” a familiar piece… although Barber takes it much faster than I’ve ever heard it performed before.  Barber’s “Nocturne” is another beautiful piece, again stretching tonality and modality beyond where Chopin and his contemporaries too this particular form.  “Nuvoletta” is a bouncier thru-composed piece, very much in the vein of “A Monk and His Cat.”
Knoxville: Summer of 1915” takes a different approach musically – Barber’s piano is replaced with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  The lush textures paint a portrait of the American South, and once again, Price’s vocal qualities are a perfect fit.  This “vocal rhapsody” with it’s shifting moods and emotions is followed by a pair of arias from Barber’s adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra, from when Price premiered the work with the Met in the titular soprano role.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this album as much as I did – this is one I expected to listen to, write my way through something, and just move on.  However, the balance between simplicity of line and phrase paired with the complexity of meter, harmony, and other aspects just flow so beautifully and naturally in Barber’s vocal works presented here.  And once again, Leontyne Price’s amazing vocal work doesn’t hurt. J

Tomorrow – The Birth of the Cool (Miles Davis)
Next week – Bizet: Carmen

Friday, February 18, 2011

Conditions - Small Dose music

2/18/11 – Conditions (The Temper Trap)

All you needed was a couple of instruments and a few chords and you could be on an indie label. - David Byrne

            So it seems that WERS is the inspiration for most of the “indie” songwriters and bands on this list.  Once again, I’m completely ok with that; just pointing it out so that if these are the albums you find yourself getting into, you may want to check them out.  If you’re not around Boston, they have a website.  And an iPhone app to stream their music if you’d like.  The first time I heard The Temper Trap outside of Emerson’s radio station was a Coke commercial featuring the single “Sweet Disposition.”  I’m sure you’ve heard it before – if not you can check it out here.  Their song is like a floaty, atmospheric U2.  Good stuff.  Here’s the play–by–play from the debut album by this group from Melbourne, Australia.
            “Love Lost” opens the album with a driving organ rhythmic motif.  Not exactly a hook in and of itself, but a solid base (or bass) for the tune.  Dougy Mandagi’s lead vocals sit in an easy upper chest moving often into falsetto, giving the vocals a relaxed and still present tone.  It transitions into “Sweet Disposition” seamlessly – same key and tempo.  The delayed, muted guitar once again sounds like a page taken out of the playbook of either U2 or The Police.  This single, the closest to a mainstream hit from the group to date, has made a few additional commercial appearances as well, and traveled as far as 108 on the Billboard charts.  It’s a great tune, and a perfect vehicle for their sound.
            “Fader” also segues directly out of the previous track.  While I appreciate continuity and thematic transitions, at this point, it begins to feel like the band is a “one note” group; one key, one tempo, one beat, one groove.  While it’s a nice place to visit, sometimes it feels like they’re living there for too long.  “Rest” finally takes a bit of a different direction, but still not much of a departure.  The tempo picks up, but we still sit in D major.  Furthermore, the lyrics leave something to be desired.
            “Down River” puts the total number of tunes in D major consecutively to five.  It’s beginning to get ridiculous.  The orchestral string accompaniment adds another musical dimension, but the lyrics are as repetitive and mundane as the previous track.  “Soldier On” takes us into B minor (which for the theory types, is just another name for D major.  If you can’t tell, I’m really getting annoyed by this.)  The change in texture is once again nice, but not enough.  I think this album would be a great collection of singles, and I really like the group’s tone, sound, and approach musically, but find them better in smaller doses, I think.  Likewise, I think I could more passively enjoy this album than actively paying attention to it from start to finish.
            “Fools” is more of the same – songs in the key of D major.  In fact the vocal gesture at the beginning is almost verbatim taken from “Sweet Disposition.”  I’m beginning to question if the band knows more than a handful of chords that all happen to fit into this one key.  “Resurrection” FINALLY moves into E minor.  (Closely related, yes, but I’ll take what I can get.)  its subdued, rhythmic bass and hi-hat groove are a welcome departure, and perhaps sets it apart enough to be the second best of the album.  Not because it’s better – because it’s not the same old same old.
            And then with that out of the way, we’re back to B minor for “Science of Fear.”  Again.  Enough said.  I’m getting unnecessarily angry about this.  The final track is a rather well crafted instrumental (in E minor!) entitled simply “Drum Song.”  It’s got a little Blue Man Group mixed in with the established U2 meets Coldplay vibe that’s been going on.  Like I said, I think every song here is at least descent, but as a whole, this album grates on me.  Call it too much of a mostly good thing.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cannonball Adderley's Finest Hour - Or "The Album That Made Me Appreciate Bebop"

There's no future without the past and anybody who doesn't really understand where jazz has come from has no right to try to direct where it's going.
- Julian Edwin "Cannonball" Adderley

          I know this is becoming a theme, but another problem with compilation albums like this is that it’s so much harder to track down sidemen – as much as I’d love to know who’s the great trumpet soloist on “I’ll Remember April,” I have not the time to track down information on each track…  Ah well.  Also becoming a running theme – my distaste for bebop.  While Cannonball’s work falls into this category, I can get into this.  Maybe my palate is growing; maybe it’s just him, I don’t know, but he’s got a cool, composed sense of line and phrasing I don’t normally get from the hard boppers and I can really enjoy.
“I’ll Remember April” opens the CD with a nice uptempo swing tune.  The trumpet solo is as memorable, if not moreso, than any of the sax work.  I think what makes this work for me is that the bass and piano keep a more full harmonic background, and most of the solo lines play closer to the changes, as opposed to getting too high into extensions (like 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths).  Likewise, Adderley’s tone seems consistently “cleaner” than most alto players; there’s more edge to his notes than breathiness, and it works well.  I think a number of the tunes on this album mostly play “safer” – the solos lie closer to the chords, and the harmonies aren’t as complex as is usual for jazz composition.  It’s simply more approachable than Coltrane, for example.  Even the burning uptempos like “Spectacular” and “Hoppin’ John” don’t overcomplicate – the virtuosity of the performer isn’t muddled by reaching too far in scope.
The short arrangement of “A Foggy Day” features a lusher than normal Cannonball with a nice and warm string section behind him.  While the tune doesn’t develop as much as I usually prefer, the tune itself here seems to be sufficient enough to carry the track.  “T’s Tune” has a great laid back, bluesy swing to it, and Adderley’s pairing with the remainder of his horn section (again, specifically his lead trumpet) is phenomenal.  “I Don’t Care” feels somewhat latin, despite being a medium swing.  I think part of it is because I so often associate jazz flute with latin. 
“Lover Man” hits the mark for my ballad-searching soul.  A beautiful tune simply presented and with a beautiful solo and cadenza by this sweet saxophone player.  “Jubilation” is a relatively simple bouncy tune – most of the melody is presented in unison with just a bass line underneath.  The result makes the whole chart easier to follow.  I think that’s the underlying lesson to be learned from this album… music, and jazz in particular, doesn’t always have to be so complex to be good.
“Nothin’” follows this formula, presenting an introduction outlining the harmonic and rhythmic groove the tune is based upon before adding layers of melody and counterlines.  Like I said, either my tastes for bebop are changing, or this really is easier to get into.  Either way, Adderley’s Finest Hour truly is some great music.  It’s just that simple.

Tomorrow – Conditions (The Temper Trap)
Next week – Trident (McCoy Tyner)