Recent Listening: Adams and Ellington

Ellington: Such Sweet Thunder. I pulled out this album, surely one of the most distinguished of the master’s output for Columbia Records in the ’50’s, because I was re-reading David Schiff’s The Ellington Century, which includes a movement-by-movement discussion of the title work. As always with Ellington, the individuality of each player’s contribution, perfectly framed by the composer, makes up an astonishing orchestral palette. The CD version of the album includes a lot of bonus tracks, not all of which are at as high a level as the suite itself, but, of course, anything by Ellington is of interest. Do check out Schiff’s book, which is an intriguing take on 20th-century music history that puts Ellington at the center, rather than Stravinsky or Schoenberg, in addition to having lots of great insights on Ravel, Berg and more. I look forward to reading Schiff’s new book on Carter which has just come out.

Adams: The Chairman Dances. San Francisco Symphony; Edo de Waart, conductor. This is a collection of orchestral pieces by John Adams, which I missed when it was released by Nonesuch in the late ’80s. In addition to the title piece, it includes Christian Zeal and Activity, Tromba Lontana, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and Common Tones in Simple Time. I had only heard the widely-performed Short Ride and The Chairman Dances before. Short Ride is one of those perpetual motion concert openers that became a widely cultivated genre at one point; I think Chris Rouse’s The Infernal Machine is a more more finely shaped example of such a piece. My favorite piece on the album was Common Tones in Simple Time. The style of this 20-minute piece resembles that of the grand canvases of Harmonielehre and Naive and Sentimental Music, those symphonies in all but name that constitute Adams’ full integration of post-minimalist (maybe post-post-minimalist) materials with those of the romantic and early 20th century repertoires. Adams’ music plays such a prominent role in the American symphonic world; I think the interest on the part of younger composers in extended performance techniques and edgy idioms is in part a reaction against his work. It will be interesting to see if the pendulum swings the other way any time soon.

All Souls Day Miscellany

– soprano Kameryn Leung is singing my “Cinder” today at the Civic Morning Musicals Vocal Competition in Syracuse, accompanied by pianist Szilvia Mikó. I see the judges for the competition include Marni Nixon. Good luck, Kameryn!

– Two, count ’em, two new music concerts you should be at in Philly tomorrow, Nov. 3, with Orchestra 2001 doing Joan Tower, Schoenberg and Walton – 2:30 at Swarthmore College, followed by Network for New Music doing Daniel Asia, George Rochberg, Philip Maneval, Richard Wernick, and Shulamit Ran at the Ethical Society, 8:00 pm. Some relevant videos from Network:

– Marti Moss-Coane recently hosted Terry Teachout on Radio Times for a discussion of Teachout’s new bio of Duke Ellington – go here to listen. The book is being very well-received, and is definitely on my Christmas wish list.

Fall Reading List

Some items I am hoping to get to this fall:

My Bright Abyss – Christian Wiman

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington – Terry Teachout

The Leonard Bernstein Letters – edited by Nigel Simeone

Transatlantic – Colum McCann

The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop – Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.

That last item is by one of my colleagues at the day job – check out his blog here.

Freegal is Free (well, for listeners)

Are you aware of Freegal? (Their website is mysteriously sparse.) This is a digital music download service for libraries to offer their account holders. You get three downloads a week – and you select from hundreds of thousands of items in the Sony Music holdings. Now, libraries are paying for the content – and it is slightly fishy that they are buying something and giving it to you instead of lending it. I leave you to ponder that one. The upside for listeners is rather amazing. Why Sony is doing this is a headscratcher. Just today, through the Free Library of Philadelphia, I got some of the Monk Town Hall concert. The Ellington listings alone could use up your 3 per week for a couple of years (Realize that Sony holds both the Columbia and RCA catalogs – Ellington’s two principal labels). Now, it isn’t perfect – I downloaded what was supposed to be Pierre Boulez’s Rituel – and it shows up in iTunes as Rituel – but it was actually a different track from the same album. Once again it’s the classical stuff that gets screwed up, just like the pages for classical CDs on Amazon that don’t identify the pieces and composers on an album, or the weird inconsistencies of how classical pieces show up in iTunes (How many classical tracks do you have where the genre comes up as “blues”?). Anyway, you can probably download this song, appropriate for the day.

Heat Wave Miscellany

new music in Philadelphia
When pointing out the Feldman and AACM festivals coming up in Philly, I should have also pointed out the Month of Moderns by Donald Nally’s choir The Crossing, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s performances of Henze’s Phaedra, featuring Tamara Mumford, whose performance in Queen of Spades I enjoyed so much earlier this season.(Thanks to David Patrick Stearns’s article in the Inquirer for the reminder.)

recent listening:
The Great Chicago Concerts (Jazz Heritage).  Two very fine live 1946 performances by Ellington, including excerpts from Black, Brown & Beige (very different from the RCA Victor studio version), the Deep South Suite, a wonderfully strange take on Caravan, a rhapsodic Frankie and Johnny featuring a good bit of Ellington piano, and several loosely contructed tracks featuring, of all people, guest artist Django Reinhardt.

Chamber music of John Harbison (Naxos). Anchored by two piano trios, from 2003 and 1968, this incisively played album by the Amelia Piano Trio also features a number of miniatures: a set of charming Micro-Waltzes for piano, sets of solo viola pieces, the Gatsby Etudes based on music from Harbison’s opera, and more. There is an all-star viola quartet that includes Steven Tenenbom and Ida Kavafian, as well as  Anthea Kreston, the violinist from the Amelia, and the composer himself. The early Trio, written when the composer was only 30, shows that Harbison had a darn good command of an edgy high-modernist atonal idiom, something he subsequently largely set aside; yet the more familiar voice that emerged is still present.


recent reading:
The Anthologist
by Nicholson Baker. A gentle, melancholy first-person narrative about a minor poet failing to complete the preface to a poetry anthology. The hyper-detailed observations of Baker’s first books have drifted away, but he is still a keen observer. There is also a good deal of rather cranky and doubtful technical stuff about rhyme and meter (you may be startled to learn that pentameter doesn’t exist), and tales of the great poets that show the narrator’s – and the author’s – love for the world of poetry and the larger world through poetry.

Swiss (Ellington) Movement

I came upon this disc at a branch of the Free Library here in Philly. (Thank God for libraries and librarians. But what made somebody order this particular fairly obscure disc?) It documents a live performance by the Ellington band in Zurich in 1950, and it is fascinating to hear the band roughly mid-way between the Blanton-Webster masterpieces and the famous Newport appearance. The best thing about this Zurich disc is the solo work, rather than the compositions, although there are interesting things in that regard as well. I enjoyed Harry Carney, too infrequently in the spotlight, playing Strayhorn’s “Paradise”, and Johnny Hodges with his own Strayhorn showcase, “Violet Blue”. Strayhorn himself comes to center stage for a moment, with a solo turn on ” ‘A’ Train”. Among Duke’s own compositions on the album, “The Tatooed Bride” is the most extended, with some intricately layered writing, including some amazingly  pointillistic transitions. But in general there is a loose quality about this concert, with some of the tunes rather casually put together. I don’t know how it came to be, but Don Byas is a guest, and has an excellent solo on “How High the Moon”. Ernie Royal has a similar feature on a standard tune, with some choruses of “S’Wonderful”. The recorded sound is quite decent for the time and for a live performance, though balances are not always ideal. It is not clear to me why, but the band is carrying two drummers – Sonny Greer and Butch Ballard. Duke makes reference to them both in his remarks after “Bride” – it is not clear if they are alternating or if they sometimes play together – it doesn’t sound like more than one at a time. What did strike me is that  the drumming is sometimes heavy handed throughout the disc – accents boom through the texture annoyingly – perhaps a combination of the performer and the PA system? The booklet notes for the disc are almost unintelligible, and there are some interesting typos (the noted Italian trombonist “Quentini Jackson” makes an appearance). This is not in my top five Ellington albums, but anything by Duke is of interest, and you might want to check this out.