Ken Thomson’s Amazing “Sextet”


 

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Panoramic Recordings

First of all this packaging is about twice the size of a normal CD package.  It is lovingly designed by Jason Das and visually suggests a sort of nostalgia for innocence, for childhood perhaps.  The performers are all of that “New York Downtown”/modern music background and this is a set of rigorously trained musicians.    Put them together as a sextet and tap their virtuosity as well as their improvisational abilities and some clever programming and you get this album.

It is an unusual but ultimately very satisfying album.  It starts with (of all things) a transcription of music by the late Hungarian master Gyorgy Ligeti, his Pasacaglia Ungherese (1978) which is originally for harpsichord.   This is hardly a “jazz” piece and one wonders at the choice of this particular work to be the one to make that all important first impression.  The transcription (by Ken Thomson) is quite effective however and very entertaining.  I’m not sure why the it was chosen but it works well here.

This leaves us with the remaining six tracks (all composed by Ken Thomson) which are more clearly in the realm of “jazz” the way most listeners are accustomed to hearing it.  Drums keeping the beat, a recognizable bass line, and improvisational solos over the harmonic progression.  These virtuosos are given a challenge by said composer and the solos which populate these tracks are one of the best things about this release.  Clearly these musicians are comfortable with their virtuosity and they seem to understand jazz.  They got and held this listener’s attention most immediately.

The Ken Thomson Sextet consists of Ken Thomson, composer and alto saxophone; Anna Webber, tenor saxophone; Russ Johnson, trumpet; Alan Ferber, trombone; Adam Armstrong, bass; and Daniel Dor, drums.  Clearly all these folks have a thorough knowledge of jazz performance and can take their audience on a mighty exciting ride.  The solos will stick in your head long after the initial thrill of your first hearing and this is a nicely balanced group functioning almost as a single entity.  Very cool.

This is chamber jazz at its finest.

 

Louisville Orchestra Reboot on CD: All In


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The Louisville Orchestra was established in 1937 and its history has been wonderfully told in a 2010 documentary entitled, Music Makes a City.  Since their founding they released about 150 LPs containing new and interesting music not available anywhere else.  Many of those recordings have become available on the Albany CD label but the orchestra hasn’t released a new recording in about 30 years.

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Teddy Abrams

Along comes new music director, composer, clarinetist Teddy Abrams and now we are graced with a new recording on the Decca Gold label.  Now for a reboot this release is somewhat conservative in it’s musical choices but that’s not to say it isn’t interesing.  This recording, released also in commemoration of the orchestra’s 80th season, reflects a sincere effort to draw younger audiences to the concert hall.

This auspicious release contains as its opening Abrams’ Unified Field, a finely crafted four movement work that channels the late Aaron Copland and his ilk.  It’s style is inflected with elements of jazz and other so called “vernacular” music but it incorporates those styles in much the way that Copland and his contmporaries incorporated folk song as well as jazz/pop rhythms. It is virtually a symphony in its dimensions and is highly entertaining while remaining seriously classical and very finely crafted.  The year of it’s composition is not specified in the notes this writer received but best guess is that it is of recent vintage in this talented composer’s oeuvre.

This is followed, curiously, by three torch songs, one by the able soloist Storm Large, one by Cole Porter, and one by Teddy Abrams.  The stylistic unity of these three songs is striking and Storm Large (who is known for her work with Pink Martini) is a convincing chanteuse.

These are followed by another American masterpiece, the Clarinet Concerto (1948) by Aaron Copland.  Originally written (and subsequently recorded by) Benny Goodman, the concerto is definitely in the repertoire but receives far too few hearings in concert.  This writer had not heard the concerto in many years and was struck both by its quality and by the convincing performance recorded here.  Abrams takes the solo role and the orchestra is conducted with assurance by one Jason Seber.

Abrams’ reading is as convincing and authentic as any and this is a delightful way to close this wonderful recording.  Here’s hoping that this release will be the restart of Louisvilled great recorded legacy and that Abrams tenure as conductor will breath new life into an orchestra which has become a venerable part of America’s cultural history.

 

 

The Alchemy of Diversity at Sound and Savor


 

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Freshly baked bialys right out of the oven opened the brunch.

This is another in the continuing account of my encounters with Philip Gelb’s underground vegan salon now called Sound and Savor.  For some twelve years now he has hosted a series of dinners, brunches, and cooking classes.  Many of the multi-course meals also feature some of the finest musicians, many from San Francisco and the east bay.

Today’s brunch started with fresh brewed coffee with a dollop of ginger (vegan) ice cream along with fresh baked bialys with cashew cream, pickled red onions, and “carrot lox”.  So we began with a vegan Jewish theme.  Needless to say these were delicious and the coffee helped waken anyone not ready for this 11AM start.

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The next course was a similarly delicious borscht (beet soup) with beet pakoras.  And clearly Phil has introduced this traditionally Indian dish which worked remarkably well with that soup.  Again all were hot out of the pot/fryer clearly in our view.

As Phil performed his culinary alchemy in the kitchen we were most attentively served by his assistant for this meal, Letitia, a smiling joy of a woman who seems to have the knowledge and genuine caring of customer service in her blood.  She was equally attentive to all in the crowd of about twenty diners with the usual mix of familiar faces and few new ones.  Indeed the beautifully presented courses came at just the right pace.

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The main course in this brunch was a Potato-Onion Tortilla, blood orange salad.  And once again the diversity of cultures mixed to truly savory results as the friendly conversations flowed.  At this point even the hungriest would hope for a pause and that’s exactly what happened.

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With a judicious touch of rearranging Phil prepared a performance space for the three musicians who graced us on this beautiful sunny Oakland day.  Jay Ghandi, bansuri (Indian Flute), Sameer Gupta, tablas (a staple of Hindustani music), and David Boyce, saxophone and bass clarinet (need I say a staple of jazz?).  The alchemy of the food would now find an analogy in this jam session.  Boyce and Gupta had played here about a year ago and Ghandi is a frequent collaborator with both musicians.  All three had played yesterday in San Jose and were scheduled to play in San Francisco at the Red Poppy Art House.  They are touring to promote their recent release A Circle Has No Beginning.  These are just three of the musicians who participated in this crowd sourced disc which is itself worth your attention.

The energy was immediately palpable as seen in this excerpt from one of three pieces they played.

This last excerpt demonstrates the ease of communication between these musicians who blend diverse backgrounds of jazz and Hindustani musics seamlessly into something new and wonderful.  The audience was energized to a level beyond what coffee could do and broke into appreciative applause after each piece.

The brunch ended with a dessert of (again fresh baked) Citrus Semolina Cake and more of that delicious coffee and ice cream.  And, of course, more conversation.

These events have become a regular part of this writer’s recreational time and a real reason to celebrate living in the diverse and creative east bay.  Phil’s judicious blend of cultures in his culinary experiments provide a parallel to his curation of some of the finest musicians with the only purpose in both case to entertain and enlighten.  He achieved both is a big way this day.  Thanks to all who participated.

Linda Twine, A Musician You Should Know


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Linda Twine

I have found it strange that the few articles I have written (and, full disclosure, I’m a white guy) on black musicians seem to have placed me in the position of being one of apparently a limited number of writers/bloggers who pay attention to the topic.  Happily these articles have gained an audience.  The rather simple piece I wrote on black conductors, a little essay composed in honor of Black History Month, remains by far one of my most read articles.

The vicissitudes of race and racism are such that we need to say, “black lives matter” because even the most cursory examination of statistics shows that they seem to matter far less than lives with other racial identities.  The same is true with music and musicians..  There are organizations dedicated to the promotion of black musicians because they remain far less well represented.

It is in this spirit that I am writing this little sketch to highlight a black musician who does not have a Wikipedia page or even a personal web page that I have been able to find.  You can find her easily with a Google search but you will find some of the same segregation of which I spoke.  One finds her on the “Broadway Black” website which does a fine job of promoting her and her work.  And what fine work it is.

To be fair she is also on the “Internet Broadway Database“, “Playbill“, the “Internet Movie Database“, and one can find her most recent work listed on the “Broadway World” site.  Her cantata, “Changed My Name” can be found on You Tube.  And it is there where, curiously enough, one can find the most comprehensive information on her.  I present it here:

From the Muskogee Phoenix, 11/10/2007, we have this information about Linda Twine:

Twine, a native of Muskogee, OK, graduated from Oklahoma City University in 1966, with a bachelor of arts degree in music. There, she studied piano with the esteemed Dr. Clarence Burg and Professor Nancy Apgar. After graduating from OCU, Twine studied at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where she earned a master’s degree, and made New York her home. She began her musical career in New York, teaching music in public school by day and accompanying classical and jazz artists at night. At one of these engagements, she was asked if she would like to substitute for the keyboardist of the Tony Award winning Broadway hit, “The Wiz.” Her positive response began a long career in Broadway musicals from keyboard substitute to assistant conductor of Broadway orchestras. In 1981, to conductor when Lena Horne asked her to conduct her one-woman hit, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” This garnered Twine the respect of her peers and as a much sought-after Broadway musical conductor. In addition to “The Wiz” and “Lena Horne,” Twine’s Broadway credits include, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Big River” (the score composed by Oklahoman Roger Miller), “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Frog and Toad,” “Caroline or Change,” “Purlie,” and the current “The Color Purple,” starring Fantasia. Not only a distinguished conductor, Twine is also a composer and arranger. She composed “Changed My Name,” a cantata inspired by slave women Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and written for two actresses, four soloists, and a chorus. Her popular spiritual arrangements are published by Hinshaw. As a producer, instrumental and vocal arranger, her work can be seen and heard in the books and CDs of the Silver Burdett Publishing company, which are used by many public schools in the United States. Community commitment and involvement have also marked Twine’s outstanding career. She has arranged and composed for the renowned Boys Choir of Harlem, and she served for 14 years as minister of music for St. James Presbyterian Church of New York. Among her many awards and honors is the “Personal Best Award for Achievement and the Pursuit of Excellence,” for her role as a writer and arranger for the Boys Choir of Harlem, her artistic achievements in the world of Musical Theatre, and her concern for humanity. Twine, a proud Oklahoman, is the granddaughter of William Henry Twine, a pioneer lawyer who made a homestead claim in the 1891 Sac and Fox Run, and along with G.W.F. Sawner and E.I. Saddler established the first black law partnership in Oklahoma Territory.

So here, in honor of Black History Month, I wish to present this fine musician whose art deserves the world’s attention.  Take note please.

Sarah Cahill et al: By and for Terry Riley


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Had to save this one for Christmas.  If ever there was an album that conjures more of the positive intents of the Christmas season this one gets my vote.  Imagine celebrating a living acknowledged master artist in a milieu of his actual and artistically extended family.  That may seem an extreme notion to some but this writer is utterly charmed and thrilled to hear this “one of a kind” collection.  Other interpretations will, of course, be valid but none will ever match this one.  It’s like the Carter family of the avant-garde (and I mean that unambiguously with great respect).

Any release by Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill is reason enough alone to perk up one’s ears but this massive four disc collection of all new recordings in honor of Terry Riley’s 80th birthday (Terry was born in 1935) is a major release of (almost) all of Riley’s music for piano, piano four hands and two pianos.  In addition two of the discs are dedicated to pieces commissioned in honor of Riley.  This set belongs in the collection of anyone interested in mid to late twentieth century music and especially fans of minimalism and the curiously west coast iterations of modernism.

As a listener I have always treated every Terry Riley release as a major event as well and this collection does about as fine a job as one can imagine in paying homage to one of the brightest artistic lights of the Bay Area.  Riley came to prominence (at least historically speaking) with his open score piece, In C (1964).  It is among the earliest examples of the style which, for better or worse, became known as “minimalism”.  Since then he has continued to produce music in pretty much all genres, chamber music, orchestral music, solo music, concerti, etc.

Riley’s style, however, continued to evolve and his later works show diverse influences from his days playing barrel house piano, his interest in progressive jazz, and his studies of Hindustani and Carnatic musics (under the tutelage of Pandit Pran Nath).  Like pretty much every composer of that first wave of “minimalists” Riley has evolved a much deeper and individualized style but, even with the diversity of influences as mentioned, he remains uniquely Terry Riley.

Throughout his career as composer and performer Terry has been a teacher and an advocate of new music.  His enthusiasm and talent has affected all who know him and, I dare say, all who have experienced his work.

This collection ranges over his entire career from the early “Two Pieces” (1958/9) to later solo and four hand compositions on the first two discs.  It is worth noting that Be Kind to One Another (2008/14) was one of the commissions in Sarah Cahill’s wonderful series of anti-war pieces, “A Sweeter Music”.  It then goes on to the homages which, of course, can also be said to be influenced by Riley’s work.

This is not simply a collection of Riley’s piano music.  What we have here is a lively celebration of most of Riley’s music for piano, two pianos and piano four hands from the full spectrum of his career (as the liner notes say a couple of large compositions were not included, most likely a matter of space) along with a touching set of homages by composers related musically and aesthetically to Mr. Riley.  They range from contemporaries to students, artistic descendants to actual family.  It is a multi-generational tribute and a loving artifact that celebrates this artist on a very personal level.

Regina Myers supplies the other two hands in the disc of four hand piano pieces by Riley.  She credits another Bay Area composer/teacher/conductor, the Mills College based Steed Cowart for recommending her for this crucial role.  Such touches add to the sense of this being a Bay Area family project on so many levels.

The interrelationships that comprise this lovely production make it stand distinctly apart from the (no less significant or lovely) homages to fellow minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  This is a much more personal album which reflects Riley as composer, teacher, inspiration, father, icon and friend.  Anyone who has met Terry or experienced him in performance has experienced a certain warmth like that of a wise and gentle guru.

After the two discs of Riley’s music we are treated to music inspired by another generation of artists and, last, by long time colleague, the late great Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), another wise and gentle guru who died just about a year before the release of this album.  She and Terry worked together (along with Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, Steve Reich, William Maginnis, and Tony Martin) as founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center which would become the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music (still operating today).  The producers wisely dedicated an entire disc to one of Oliveros’ last compositions, this loving tribute to her friend and colleague. It is now, sadly, a tribute to her memory as well.   Samuel Adams shares the performing duties along with Ms. Cahill on this extended homage.

There is little doubt that the other composers whose music graces this tribute will continue on their unique paths to continued success always acknowledging their connections to Mr. Riley.  Danny Clay is among the less familiar (to this reviewer) names here but his Circle Songs seem to fit quite well to open the first tribute disc.  Gyan Riley is, of course, one of Terry’s children and a fine guitarist and composer  in his own right.  Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Gyan and Terry play together cannot miss the close bond personally and musically of these two.  They are a joy to behold.  The affectionate Poppy Infinite is a reference to the elder Riley’s Poppy Nogood’s Phantom Band which was the “B side” of his classic Rainbow in Curved Air.  Samuel Adams is the son of Pulitzer Prize winner John Adams whose early work China Gates was written for and championed by his fellow classmate at the San Francisco Conservatory, Sarah Cahill.  The younger Adams’ contribution here is called Shade Studies.

The eclectic Christine Southworth also seems to embody the (perhaps loosely defined) West Coast style.  Her interests in electronics and world music describe this superficially but her sound is a welcome one here as well.  Keeril Makan earned his PhD. in music at Berkeley which doubtless has left a stamp on his style.  His composition “Before C” makes reference to what is doubtless Terry Riley’s best known work, the oft performed, “In C”.  Elena Ruehr is a composer whose connection is not as clear as some of the others here but her work, “In C too” demonstrates her understanding of and her respect for Riley’s work.  Last on this disc of tributes is Dylan Mattingly.  He is a Berkeley native and can frequently be seen/heard performing in various venues in the Bay Area.  His contribution YEAR demonstrates both his individual style and his connection to the West Coast Style mentioned earlier.

The liner notes by Sarah Cahill are part of the tribute and a good description of the various influences behind the man of the hour, Terry Riley.  Credit is properly given to the artistic influences that inspired Mr. Riley and a brief description of what must have been an intimidating but loving project.  It is likely that there are even more connections involved in this undertaking but that must be left to future musicological and historical research.

The Kronos Quartet has long ago championed Riley’s work for that medium and new versions of his classic, “In C” continue to come on the scene.  One can only hope that the energy embodied here will inspire recordings of some of Riley’s lesser known work with orchestra which richly deserves hearings.  But regardless there is much to celebrate here and best holiday wishes go out to Mr. Riley and his talented progeny.  Happy listening, all.

 

 

 

Dark Queen Mantra, Celebrating Terry Riley at 80



Terry Riley (1935- ) turned 80 on June 24, 2015 and happily we are still celebrating this treasure of American music.  His iconic work “In C” (1964) is one of the defining works of the minimalist movement and Riley’s trippy album, “Rainbow in Curved Air” (1969) has also endured well.  But these works typify his early style and his work has evolved though his primary influences continue to be jazz and Hindustani music for the most part to a very personal style.

His discography boasts at least 30 albums and his compositions range from various chamber music pieces, solo and duo piano music, orchestral music, concertos and even music drama.  His influence on musicians is wide ranging and even includes that familiar intro to Baba O’Riley by the The Who (the title is actually an homage to Meher Baba and Terry Riley and that intro derives from Riley’s first Keyboard Study).  In recent years he has achieved much deserved success in collaboration with his son Gyan Riley who is a composer in his own right and an extraordinary guitarist.  Their collaborations have been a true highlight in both musicians’ careers.

This disc is a production from the truly wonderful Sono Luminus label whose recordings continue to set a high bar for production and excellence in sound as well as in intelligent programming.

Three works are presented here.  The first is Dark Queen Mantra (2015) for electric guitar and string quartet.  It is obviously the centerpiece and it is a fine work commissioned in honor of Riley’s 80th and written for the forces who perform it here. The amazing and versatile Del Sol Quartet and Gyan Riley seem a natural pairing.  These California based musicians seem to pour the whole of their artistic hearts and souls into this performance and Gyan Riley, a fine musician in his own right, always seems to be at his very best in his collaborations with his dad.  (Indeed anyone who had the pleasure of seeing their live sets can testify as to their beautiful musical intimacy.)

So it is we have a definitive recording of yet another fine piece from this beloved composer.  The choice to follow it with Mas Lugares (2003) by the late Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) is an inspired and very appropriate choice (Riley was fond of this composer and helped promote his work).  Scodanibbio collaborated with Riley and recorded two albums with him (Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles, 1997 and Diamond Fiddle Language, 2005).  This work for string quartet is dedicated to Luciano Berio and is a sort of deconstruction via the lens of the composer’s vision of madrigals by the early baroque master Claudio Monteverdi.  It is truly a joy to hear more of this composer’s music and this serves as a loving homage by the Del Sol and, by association, with Riley.

The concluding music is again by Terry Riley and it comes from the rich period of his collaboration with another set of fine California based musicians, the Kronos Quartet. They Wheel and the Mythic Birds Waltz (1983) first appeared on a Gramavision disc and this is a welcome reprise.  It is via his writing for the Kronos that Riley produced most of his string quartet writing and it is a fine repository for his compositional talents.

For its sound and its compositional and performance content this is one of the finest discs to come across this reviewer’s desk and it is a beautiful homage to Riley (father and son), the Del Sol Quartet, the Kronos Quartet and to the late Stefano Scodanibbio.  This is a gorgeous and deeply satisfying album.  Kudos to all.

Oceanus Procellarum: Gareth Davis and Elliot Sharp


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I recall excitedly taking a class in college in the late 70s which dealt with post 1950 composition.  The professor emphasized that the reigning characteristic of this music is “pluralism”, that is to say that anything goes and one gets less useful information from labels like, “classical”, “baroque”, “romantic”, “post-romantic”, “post-modern”, etc.  There is no question that this maxim remains very true and we now are seeing composers well-versed in virtually every technique known to the world of composition.

This album is a fine example of such pluralism.  Seeing names such as Elliott Sharp and Gareth Davis one might expect something of the “free jazz” genre and that would not necessarily be an inaccurate description.  But it would fail to capture the wonderful writing for Ensemble Resonanz by the eclectic (yes, pluralistic too) Elliott Sharp.  As a composer Sharp draws on late twentieth century modern/post-modern compositional techniques along with a fair amount of his own creative innovations gleaned from his own experimentation and, no doubt, from his exposure to the wildly creative milieu of the Downtown New York scene of the 80s and 90s.

The result is like listening to shades of Penderecki and Xenakis as they wrote in the late 1950s though the 70s.  This is far more homage than derivation however and the achievement here is how well the soloists on guitar and bass clarinet fit into the work as a whole.  They fit remarkably well.

This could easily be called “Symphony for Ensemble with Obligatto Guitar and Bass Clarinet” or even Concerto if you like.  The point is that Sharp is an engaging composer whose works are very substantial.  From his beginnings on the New York Downtown scene with its mix of jazz, experimental and classical he has continued to explore and grow as a composer and that is what ultimately makes this release so compelling.

The musicianship here from Ensemble Resonanz, Sharp and Davis is of the first order and there is a certain sense of a tight fit such that, whatever may be improvised here sounds as though it were carefully written into this large orchestral fabric.  This is a powerful piece of music and repeated listenings will doubtless reveal more and more depth.  This is a very engaging piece.

Sharp is clearly evolving and growing as a composer and still hasn’t lost his marvelous collaborative and improvisatorial abilities.  This is a major work and a lovely recording.