Nakedeye Ensemble: A Fine New Music Group Pays Homage to Past and Future


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Starkland

It was only a few days after receiving this CD that I received a visit from a friend similarly interested in new music.  Shortly after that visit I discovered that the CD was missing.  My friend confessed to having taken it immediately when I asked but I already knew why he had taken it and why I might have done the same thing.  After all it’s a Starkland CD and this new performing ensemble have chosen for this, their debut recording, to do an arrangement of one of the finest pieces of political classical music ever.  It is their clever interpretation/homage of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971) that provoked my friend’s larceny and laid bare my own moral weakness.  How could anyone resist that? (I told him took keep it and bought myself a new copy).

Nakedeye Ensemble was founded in 2011 with the intent of performing new music.  They were founded in Philadelphia

Curiously, of the six compositions featured on this release, three are “sociopolitical” and the other three I suppose come closer to a category like “absolute music”, the notion that music can be just about music.  While all art is a victim (or product) of its sociopolitical, geographical, and economic context one can at least say that there is a continuum in which some music actually depends on those contexts in a greater degree.  Sociopolitical music is a pet obsession with your humble reviewer.

The disc begins innocently enough with a fine rendition of Sextet (2010) by Jonathan Russell (1979).  This is a pleasant post-minimal work with rock influences and provides a gentle introduction to an apparently carefully constructed playlist designed to demonstrate some of the range of skills possessed by this group.  The influence of Steve Reich is present and functions almost like a framework for the post minimal music that emerges.  Another generation puts its stamp on this genre which is now older than anyone in this ensemble.

With the second track we get to one of those political pieces and to the second oldest composer represented.  Zack Browning‘s Decade of the Dragon (2015) was written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 50th anniversary of its beginning.  Browning (1957- ) is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and the director of the Salvatore Martirano Composition Award (Sal was also no stranger to politics).

Decade of the Dragon sounds like a post-modern sort of tone poem, evoking through musical quotation and development of original themes, the composer’s memories of the travesties that permeated those years formative to his development much as they were to your reviewer’s and doubtless many whom I imagine to be an ideal target audience for this music (and all the music on this disc actually).  And there is a sort of painful irony to hearing the artistic expressions of these sad historical events played (very effectively) by an ensemble for whom the events are solely history.

Rusty Banks‘ (1974-  ) “Surface Tensions” (2015) is another playful post-minimalist essay which is not afraid of a little experimentation.  Banks is among the younger composers here but this little sampling of his work suggests we will be hearing much more from his pen.

Randal Woolf  (1959) is a name which will likely be more familiar to listeners as he is a seasoned member of the so called “downtown” musicians.  He applies his considerable compositional skills to a politically infused work, “Punching the Clock” (2015).

There is a dedication and respect communicated by these musicians for their art, the artists whose work they interpret, and for the history that inspired some of them.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the last track, Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).

This piece has been done by many ensembles over the years but the only recording other than Rzewski’s original on Opus One records is one by the Hungarian ensemble “Amadinda”.  The text is spoken clearly, dramatically, and effectively and in English, albeit with a charming Hungarian accent.  There are also various lovely and interesting readings to be found on You Tube (including an uncharacteristically hesitant reading by rapper/actor Mos Def) but the arrangement by resident composer Richard Belcastro does a stunning (Am I too old to say “reboot”?) or reworking of the original.

Using different voices, intonations, and inflections this arrangement uses the voices in a sort of pointillistic counterpoint with voices having solos, sometimes answering each other, sometimes together.  Ranging from plain speech to whispers to various different vocal inflections this arrangement sort of democratizes the voices and creates a scenario in which the listener could envision their own voice and struggles.

The music here is great all the way through but the special joy of this release is the discovery of these youthful artists whose insights belie their age and whose technical skills suggest that Nakedeye can now take their place (alongside Eighth Blackbird, ICE,  Alarm Will Sound, Band on a Can All Stars, etc.)  Definitely a group that bears watching/listening.

 

 

 

The Rite Through an Eclectic Spectrum


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Gene Pritsker strikes again.  In this new work just released on CD he manages to pay homage to Igor Stravinsky in this eclectic parody of The Rite of Spring.  And one can’t possibly miss this as being a reference to Gil Evans orchestrations of Rodrigo in the classic Miles Davis album Sketches of Spain.

This is a parody in the classical sense that it uses melodies from the original to create a different musical context.  This is neither an imitation of Stravinsky nor of the Davis/Evans disc.  It is more like an updating of the Evans/Davis concept with an eclectic mix of musical styles which incorporates jazz and classical elements and is perhaps freer harmonically than the older disc and more angular in its treatment of themes.

Franz Hackl’s prominent trumpet takes on the initial bassoon riff which opens the actual ballet and along with Pritsker’s guitar these two instruments seem to provide a sort of backbone for the later inclusion of Chanda Rule (what a voice!) and the four other musicians.  Everyone gets a chance to shine much like traditional jazz and the listener will likely always be able to identify the section referenced from the original score.  This is not a deconstruction…well, not entirely anyway.

What is very clear is that these musicians are having a lot of fun (and so is the audience from the few moments where you can hear them).  There are 8 discrete tracks all recorded live (which tells you much about the musicians’ confidence in their virtuosity).  This writer can’t get over the impression that much of the inspiration here comes from  1970s musical styles.  Now that is not generally thought of as the high point of musical inspiration in the pop world but here it functions as nostalgic fun.  There is fusion reminiscent of some incarnations of Gong, guitar solos that would be the envy of any hair band guitarist, vocals, scat singing and rap that put this writer in the mind of Earth, Wind, and Fire at various times and perhaps even a touch of Chick Corea as he tried to hang a tapestry of jazz on Alice in Wonderland.

Each of the sections makes reference more or less directly to various sections of the original ballet score and the entire ballet is pretty much represented (or torn apart) depending on your point of view.  This is serious high energy virtuosic jazz by a truly driven and dedicated group consisting of: Gene Pritsker (guitar, rap, DJ), Chanda Rule (voice), Max Pollak (tap dancer, percussion, rap), Franz Hackl (trumpet), Greg Baker (guitar), Philipp Moll (bass), Gernot Bernroider (drums).

This is a very appealing album though all Stravinsky fans might not like it and maybe all jazz fans might not like it.  But those same statements could be made about the Miles Davis/Gil Evans recording reference earlier.

This live recording from the Outreach Music Festival 2014 in Austria was recorded by Sigi Konzett and Andreas Wein with mixing by Wein.  This release is on Composers Concordance Records.  It was set for release on December 8th.  Check it out.  It will rock your world.

Coming Out Electric: Trevor Babb’s Warmth



Steve Reich’s masterful Electric Counterpoint (1987) opens this disc.  That work originally written for Pat Metheny  and has become pretty much a classic as well as a fine way to demonstrate a musician’s facility with multi-tracked guitar music.

Trevor Babb is a doctoral student at Yale and this appears to be his first album.  And what an album it is.  The choice of the opening work serves to demonstrate Babb’s ability to interpret, in his own individual manner, a work that has been recorded many times.  It remains a classic and very listenable work which belies the difficulties inherent in its performance.  Babb seems to take a bit more of a legato approach than previous interpretations but is definitely highly effective and this is a wonderful recording of the work.

It also serves to set the tone for the rest of this truly fine solo guitar and electronics debut album.  Electric Counterpoint is the first of 6 total works represented on this disc.  The remaining five selections fit the rubric of this collection in the overall sense but are definitely unique and challenging in their ways.

Paul Kerekes is not a familiar name to this writer and perhaps a new name to many.  His inclusion here introduces many to this composer and places him in the context of this interesting collection.  This young composer is apparently well known in the New York scene and seems to travel in the circles that include some of the most interesting artists currently working.  Trail is a very different piece than the Reich but demonstrates the range of the solo guitar and electronics genre.  This is a gentler, more meditative piece overall and one which piques interest in hearing more.

David Lang is a well known and very welcome name in new music and is here represented by Warmth, a classic Langian post-minimalist work which delights the listener while challenging the performer.

Septet by the late great James Tenney is one of those masterful compositions that is respected as a masterpiece but not often programmed.  This is due at least in part to it’s critical use of alternate tuning.  The effects intended by the composer can only be heard if the performer can play accurately the tuning involved.  It is a wonderful and listener friendly experience typical of the finest of Tenney’s grasp of how to use such tunings in the compositional process.  Babb executes this piece lovingly and this performance will likely help to nudge this work to a more frequent experience in the concert hall.

Babb introduces himself as a composer in Grimace, an impressionistic exercise in which he attempts to imitate both the style of Ligeti and evoke the image of a mask seen in an art exhibit.  Long tones and extended techniques predominate in this meditative drone-like work that demonstrates fine technique in both composition and instrumental facility.

The album concludes with Slope 2 by the emerging bass player and composer Carl Testa.   Again Babb introduces a new voice for the listener to explore.  This extended composition, more drone than pattern based, is one that deserves multiple hearings to discern its substance and to demonstrate its position in the larger rubric of this collection.

Babb produces a great debut here and makes a strong case for the genre of electric guitar with supporting electronics as being a viable format for a live concert.  He also seems to be defining that genre much the way that many solo artists are doing these days.  He seems to be constructing a repertoire establishing the classics (Reich, Tenney) and promoting the viability of works that he feels deserve a place in that repertoire.

This is a really delightful album and that extends, at least in this writer’s eye, to the cover design as well.  Again I will bemoan the loss of the 12  inch square format of LPs which could have made more prominent this lovely design by Colin Meyer and Trevor Babb.  Perhaps a 12 inch vinyl release may happen.  But until then the listener can settle most comfortably in the warmth of this truly fine release even in the smaller CD format or even as a digital download.

 

Both Homage and Nostalgia for Sergeant Pepper at the UC Theater


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Creative, practical staging and lighting was a unifying factor in this triumph from Undercover Presents.

There was a full house at the UC Theater on this Saturday, June 3rd in Berkeley.  It was the only performance of this homage to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album which was released 50 years ago (actually June 2, 1967).  Most of the performers were not even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes when this landmark of music came on the scene.  The “Summer of Love” was happening in the Bay Area and this album was unquestionably an influence then.  Tonight’s show demonstrated how that influence continues.

The audience was a mix of aging hippies (and non-hippies) and younger hipsters (is it OK to use that term and have no negative connotation?).  Some, no doubt, came for a bit of nostalgia remembering where they were when they first heard the original.  Some came to hear the creativity of local artists meeting such a challenge.

It would have been easy to simply do average covers of the songs and cater only to the nostalgia but Lyz Luke’s Undercover Presents, as usual, aimed higher than that (and hit their mark).  They, under the direction of guest producer Joe Bagale, curated a show of creative interpretations of each of the 13 tracks utilizing some of the finest of the massive talents that call the Bay Area home.  The end result was a true homage from another generation of marvelously diverse artists who put their stamp on the iconic songs without losing any respect for the power of the originals.

Simple but effective stage design by Bridget Stagnitto was reminiscent of the iconic album cover with creative lighting and functional information integrated into the tableau.  Ryan John and Brendan Dreaper were lead sound engineers.

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As is customary for these shows the bands played the tracks in their original order beginning with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra’s instrumental cover of the opening track.  Principal trombone Rob Ewing’s arrangement captured the essence of that opening and effectively set the stage for what was to follow.

(Correction:  Per Joe Bagale the opening number was arranged by soprano saxophone player Michael Zilber.)

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Vocalist Dublin sang a bluesy solo version of “With a Little Help From My Friends”, those friends being the Jazz Mafia Accomplices

Guitarist Jon Monahan takes responsibility for this arrangement which veered just a bit off of nostalgia to deliver a very effective solo vocal version (the original you may recall had that call and answer thing going on) of this, one of the best known tracks on the album.  Though it was not obvious, perhaps there was some homage intended to the late Joe Cocker who first saw the bluesy potential here when he presented his justly famed version at Woodstock in 1969.

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Raz Kennedy made effective use of backup singers in his soulful take on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  He shared arranging credit with Nick Milo.  The spirit of the Supremes, Gladys Knight (and of course the Pips), and maybe a touch of James Brown seemed to be present in the house and this arrangement got a great review from the audience.  What a voice!

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Eyes on the Shore shared arranging credits in their digital synth inflected take on Getting Better.  They went further afield with the material than some and may have briefly lost the pure nostalgia seekers but the arrangement clearly succeeded in pleasing the crowd. One would expect that psychedelia be transformed by the digital world, right?  And so it was.

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The Avant Jazz Funk duo of Scott Amendola on percussion and Will Blades on Hammond Organ (how’s that for nostalgia?) and Clavinet turned in a very intense and rich improvisational battle in their purely instrumental version of “Fixing a Hole”.  Sometimes the melody was there and sometimes it was transformed in a musically psychedelic way that went quite a distance from the original.  But the use of the Hammond Organ and Clavinet themselves provided reassurance that they wouldn’t go too far.  The performances were blazingly intense and the whole house felt it.

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We again were treated to soul with backup singers as Nino Moschella transformed the innocent ballad of adolescent alienation, “She’s Leaving Home”, into a more darkly hued version that seemed to reflect an understanding of the loss of that innocence that we all must face eventually.  Nothing somber here but clearly a different understanding consistent with the overall mission of having another generation’s way of remembering this material.

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South Asian music and philosophy are inextricably linked to the psychedelic sounds of the mid to late 1960s and nowhere is this more obvious than with the Beatles whose study of Transcendental Meditation with their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (born Mahesh Prasad Varma 1918-2008) while George Harrison studied sitar with Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920-2012).

Rohan Krishnamurthy (Mridangam, Hadjira frame drum), Prasant Radakrishnan (saxophone), and Colin Hogan (keyboard) share credits for their creative instrumental arrangement of “For Mr. Kite”.  Eschewing lyrics (which are etched in most of the audience’s minds anyway) they performed a stunningly unique rendition of this familiar song. Interestingly these musicians trace their influences to the southern Indian Carnatic tradition (somewhat different from the Hindustani traditions which influenced the Beatles) adding yet another layer of richness to the evening’s goings on.

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Colin Hogan indicts himself yet again in his arrangement of “Within You Without You”, that spacey Hindustani inflected song.  The Hogan Brothers (Steve Hogan, bass; Colin Hogan, accordion; Julian Hogan, drums; Moorea Dickason, vocals; Charlie Gurke, baritone sax) turned in a marvelous world fusion rendition of the tune (lyrics and all) to a hugely appreciative response.

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Iranian born Sahba Minikia, steeped in both Iranian and western classical traditions provided a touching arrangement of the classic, “When I’m Sixty Four”.  Featuring Mina Momeni on guitar and vocals (on video) accompanied by the Awesöme Orchestra in a song whose premise looks to the future as far as this evening looked into the past to ponder the endurance of romance.

In retrospect it is almost surprising that the marvelous diversity didn’t generate a presidential tweet of dissatisfaction.  Indeed a woman singing would produce more than a tweet of dissatisfaction in Tehran, birthplace of photographer and singer Momemi who also teaches visual arts in Canada.

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Vocalist Kendra McKinley practically turned “Lovely Rita” into a feminist anthem with some retro pop group choreography and background vocals to boot.  The visuals and the energy of the performance practically had the whole house dancing.

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Soltrón added Latin percussion and energetic dance to the already electrified atmosphere with their arrangement of the raucous “Good Morning”.  Kendra McKinley could be seen and heard tying in her energy from the previous performance as backup singer here.

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Lyz Luke stepped in to introduce the penultimate Sgt Pepper Reprise.

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The dancing energy was carried on by the colorful and energetic dancers of Non-Stop Bhangra.  They accompanied Rohan Krishnamurthy and Otis McDonald in Joe Bagale’s rocking arrangement (replete with lyrics) of the reprise of the opening.  It was like a live action version of the studio executed original performance with a stage filled with ecstatic musicians and dancers.

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Joe Bagale in his Sgt Pepper duds sings the lyrics hoping we’d enjoyed the show.

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The apocalyptic, “A Day in the Life” concluded the mission of homage and nostalgia in a bigger than life tableau of talent and diversity that connected the “there and then” to the “here and now”.  The famous extended last chord crashed in a peak of energetic music making to bring the performances to a close.

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The visuals were strongly reminiscent of the iconic album cover.

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There was no need to encourage the audience to sing along to the encore of “All You Need is Love”.  Fifty years hence we still need it and if we still don’t have it everywhere at least we had it here this night.

 

Rhys Chatham’s Pythagorean Dream


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Rhys Chatham is responsible for one of my most read posts, the fabulous Secret Rose performance reviewed here and here.  An album released around the same time is reviewed here.  These reviews reflect the music most people think of when they hear Chatham’s name: alternate tunings, large groups of multiple guitars, sometimes groups of brass and woodwinds (Chatham plays trumpet and flutes as well) in a sort of wall of sound.

For this release Chatham has chosen to go solo, sort of.  In Pythagorean Dream he uses digital delay in a real time performance allowing him to achieve a similar sound world while maintaining control over the performance in the manner of a solo performer.

Regardless of the instrumentation Chatham has always been interesting and that has not changed in this release.  He uses Pythagorean tuning (hence the title) in this work which is split over three tracks for a total of about 55 minutes of impressionistic musings in the key of Pythagoras, so to speak.

The first track has some trumpet sounds softly at the beginning but focuses on the electric guitar building his choirs of instrumental sounds using his effects pedal.  This is the familiar Chatham multiple guitar sound.  The second track presents his musings with flute, alto flute and bass flute with a guitar cadenza.  Here he reminds this listener at times of the work of LaMonte Young with sustained tones and then plays some jazz like riffs over these before the final cadenza with the guitar.  The third track, according to the liner notes, is the whole of the brass intro to the piece and is presented as a “bonus track” and is entitled Whitechapel Brass Variations. This track, unlike the previous two, is a live (as opposed to studio) performance and is a good opportunity to hear Chatham’s skill with trumpet.  It is a fearless performance.  He manages to pursue his experiments without sounding experimental.

The overall effect of this piece, with drones, hints of free jazz and memories of minimalism is mesmerizing and appears to be the next logical step in his development as a composer and performer.  A few years ago Tony Conrad released an album inspired by the same tuning system and called that album, “Slapping Pythagoras”.  Chatham, by contrast, seems more concerned with soothing him.

The brief but informative liner notes are by the composer and the recording is lucid with Chatham doing the engineering and the mastering.  This album is a must for all Rhys Chatham fans and a nice intro to his current work for those who have not heard this important composer’s work..

Songs from the Rainshadow’s Edge by Benton Roark


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This marvelous little song cycle has, unfortunately, languished for a bit in my “to do” bin and now I want to tell you that it is a fine production in every way.  I don’t know Benton Roark and his website is a bit light on biographical details but what is clear is that Mr. Roark is  possessed of a lyrical gift which this song-cycle demonstrates.  This is an artist who bears watching/listening.

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Benton Roark

He is the co-artistic director of Arkora Music who perform the work featuring the composer’s own poetry and selections from various texts read by narrators.  This sounds like a formula for a noisy avant-garde piece but that is not what we have here.  This is an intelligent clearly contemporary work that is simply beautiful and played with great sensitivity by the musicians.  The music is tonal, bluesy at times but always engaging and evocative.

Kathleen Allan, soprano; Amelia Lukas, flutes; Brendon Randall-Myers, electric guitar; Jonathan Allen, percussion; Anne Lanzlotti, viola; Samuel Suggs, double bass; Mary Berry and Maya Levy, narrators comprise the ensemble and all are strong performers.  Alan’s clear beautiful tone carries the spirit of this work and these performers are clearly listening to each other.

Definitely worth your time and repeated listenings reveal more in this wonderful piece.  You can get the album via the Arkora site linked above as well as Bandcamp.  It is on the Redshift label.

 

 

Tim Brady: The Canadian Connection


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Starkland is one of the few American labels that regularly pays attention to Canadian composers.  I previously reviewed their Paul Dolden release here.  This challenge to the curious apartheid we seem to maintain with Canadian culture is most welcome of course and one can obtain a great deal of Canadian music via Canadian labels but retail distribution of their non-pop music is limited to mail order and Internet sales (and I don’t mean Amazon either).  I strongly recommend perusing the web site of the Canadian Music Center for a truly stunning selection of this too little known recorded repertoire.  I should note that most of Brady’s releases are readily available from actuellecd.com.  You can find several of those other symphonies here as well as many other pieces and collaborative releases.  After hearing this disc I couldn’t resist hearing more  by this artist whose work has been known only faintly to me thus far.  That order is now being shipped.

Now to the disc at hand.  The  use of electric guitars as a primary instrument conjures immediate comparisons to Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham as well as to rock and blues but this music is quite different from all of these.  This is one aspect of  the work of a composer whose work includes writing for orchestra, chamber and solo instruments as well.  Brady, largely set taught in music until he attended college (Concordia University 1975-78; New England Conservatory 1978-80) is an interesting composer and performer with a widely varied palette.  Brady’s Wikipedia page is surprisingly informative as well.  You can find that here.

Tim Brady (1956- ) is an artist of many talents and this recording represents his most recent work, a symphony.  It is his fifth essay so titled and his choice of instrumentation for each (of his now 6 symphonies) is unique.  In this case he has chosen to score for four guitars (his Symphony No. 4 is for full orchestra) and also presents a separate solo version backed by electronics.  It is subtitled, “The Same River Twice” (2013) and I struggled a bit initially getting wrapped up in trying to discern the differences between the two versions but realized that is rather beside the point in a way.  What makes this music interesting is the way in which it differs from the likes of Branca and Chatham.  Brady clearly comes from a different perspective.  The myriad ways in which creative musicians find to integrate cross genre elements fascinates me as a listener.  He is 8 years younger than Branca, 4 younger than Chatham but his perspective of the inherently “pop” inflection of the electric guitar differs greatly.  He is writing another vital and welcome chapter in this loosely defined group of guitar based experimental musics of the last 40 years and his work deserves attention.

He seems to have more in common (broadly speaking) with Pat Metheny than Fred Frith and his discography reflects encounters with several ECM artists.  I’m not sure who influences who here but this is a pleasant and intelligent exploration sometimes virtuosic, sometimes drone-like but a consistently engaging piece.

As I said there are two versions of this symphony on the disc.  Along with those are two shorter tracks by Antoine Berthiaume and Rainer Wiens.  Fungi by Berthiaume is another example of the integration of pop motives into a broader quasi-improvisational context and is most successful.  The disc is rounded out with a sort of little summation “remix” by Wiens entitled “What is time?” which reportedly uses breath as a rhythmic determinant.

The playing is competent and intuitive, not flashy or self-consciously experimental.  Rather this is the work of a seasoned composer who uses his materials well .

Recording and mastering, all expertly done, were done in Canada by the artists who also did the useful liner notes (Allan Kozinn writes the gatefold notes).  The cover art and the production of the CD belong to Starkland and it is a very nice production.