Listening on the Road

IMG_1031I knew I would be spending a lot of time in the car for my trip to North Carolina this past November, so I brought a good-sized stack of CDs, more than I could possibly go through. Here the ones I got to:

Mahler: Symphony #9.  Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, conductor. Decades after conducting the premiere, Walter recorded Mahler’s last completed symphony in a reading that is notable more for its serenity than its angst.

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. This isn’t a trio plus soloist album, but an integrated whole, a quartet – true to the Bad Plus ideal of being a band. The material consists entirely of originals, with each member of the ensemble contributing.

Harbison: The Great Gatsby Suite; Darkbloom; Closer to My Own Life. Mary Mackenzie, soprano; Albany Symphony; David Alan Miller, conductor. I was there for the performance that preceded the recording of this music from Harbison’s opera, and found the Suite a compelling narrative in its own right. Darkbloom was inspired by Nabakov, while Closer to My Own Life sets texts by Alice Munro, with my friend and advocate Mary Mackenzie sounding radiant in her recorded debut as soloist.

Wagner: Tristan Und Isolde. Deborah Voigt; Thomas Moser; Petra Lang; Peter Weber; Robert Holl; Choir and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. Christian Thielemann, conductor. It won’t make you forget the Windgassen/Nilsson/Böhm version, but there is much to savor in this live recording. I was most impressed by Voigt and Lang, as well as the gorgeous orchestral playing.

Eric Chasalow: Are You Radioactive, Pal? There are many practitioners of electronic music but not so many great pieces. But Eric Chasalow’s work constitutes an exception to that rule because he is that rare combination: an artist with complete technical mastery of the medium who is also a first-class composer. Superb performances by Daniel Stepner, violin, and Philipp Stäudlin, saxophone, on pieces that combine live player with electronic sound; the remainder of the album is for fixed media alone.

Duke Ellington: Black, Brown and Beige. This is a 3-disc set of RCA recordings from 1944-46. One astonishing track after another, with compositional ingenuity and brilliant performances in full bloom. Besides excerpts from the title composition, the album includes The Perfume Suite and some remakes of earlier Ellington hits. Even the novelty numbers are a delight; who can resist Ray Nance on Otto, Make That Riff Staccato?

Stomp Off, Let’s Go

I missed the Bad Plus Joshua Redman show in Philly tonight – in lieu of a report, here are some videos, the first with the trio plus Redman from a few years ago, the second with just the trio, posted fairly recently. My post title refers to a Louis Armstrong recording, but also honors the rhythmic gamesmanship of the first song on the trio video. I’d welcome comments on what you hear going on in this tune.

Amphibian and more

– Go to Matthew Greenbaum‘s website for information on the Amphibian performance series: music and video from Maurice Wright, Dalit Warshaw, Beth Wiemann, Steve Jaffe, Wuorinen, Scelsi, Davidovsky, Wolpe, Rakowski, Nancarrow and many others, plus Matthew himself. Performers include the Momenta Quartet, Cygnus, and Mari Kimura.

– Looking forward to reading some things Santa brought me: the 2nd volume of the Sondheim lyrics with commentary and Gunther Schuller’s autobiography; also, some items from the new acquisitions shelf at Penn: At the Piano: Interviews with 21st Century Pianists by Caroline Benser (the pianists are Leif Ove Andnes, Jonathan Biss, Simone Dinerstein, Marc-André Hamelin, Stephen Hough, Steven Osborne, Yevgeny Sudbin, and Yuja Wang); and Kaija Saariaho: Visions, Narrative, Dialogues, edited by Tim Howell, with Jon Hargreaves, and Michael Rofe.

– I’ve recently been listening to The Bad Plus album For All I Care. This is the one with the brilliant Ligeti, Stravinsky, and Babbitt covers, and with Wendy Lewis on vocals. She’s awfully good – she’s not so much a “jazz” singer, more of a singer/songwriter sound, but better in tune, with clearer diction and not whiny. Her natural register seems to be a rather low contralto, but she can get into a plaintive head voice as well as a Broadway-ish belt. The reading of Roger Miller’s Lock, Stock and Teardrops is heartbreaking. But if she is so good, why are there times that I am dismayed when the voice enters? On the track Feeling Yourself Disintegrate, the trio builds to an ecstatic texture focused on a little scale segment, with some chimes layered in – it’s a wonderfully joyous moment. But then the voice comes back in, and suddenly the track becomes ordinary – very good, but mundane. It’s a figure/ground problem – I was happy to be digging the wonderful instrumental texture; that was the “figure” to which I attended. But when the voice entered, the instruments became “ground”, they seemed to recede, almost as though the level had been reduced on their channels in the mix.

The modern musicologist likes to snigger at the notion of the transcendent purity and independence of instrumental music. But that quality of going beyond the everyday is exactly what enthralled me about instrumental music when I was starting out. As a kid I remember having that feeling that I think C. S. Lewis describes somewhere – of finding oneself at home in a land you never knew existed before – when the turntable stylus hit the first groove of Kind of Blue or the Mahler 7th when I brought them home from the library. I remember my brother complaining about the lack of vocals in the jazz records I played – he felt unmoored – exactly what I loved. This special quality of music that is freed of the human voice may be a cultural construct and an illusion to be deconstructed, but that doesn’t make it invalid. I say this as a composer of plenty of vocal music. Notes and rhythms create their own world, their own voice – it’s one of the worlds I seek to live in as a musician.