Reviews of Recent Recordings
Three Pieces for Two Pianos
New World Records CD 80777-2
While I knew a bit about Larry Polansky before I heard this recording, I admit to not being familiar with his music. Polansky studied with Ben Johnston, David Rosenboom, and James Tenney amongst others, and has been a huge proponent of the music of Ruth Crawford Seeger, providing some touch points. Equally as integral to his music is a fascination with mathematical models and algorithmic processes. The program of piano pieces collected on this release showcase the convergence of Polansky’s love of folk songs, hymns, vernacular popular music, traditional compositional forms, all transformed and morphed by algorithmic reformulations.
The title piece, performed by Joseph Kubera and Marilyn Nonken starts out with a simple theme which is gradually transformed through rhythmic and harmonic modulations as the two piano parts move in and of synch with each other, arching off with vibrant agility and circling back to lyrical resolve. “Part II” and the following “Interlood” (sp) uses a Stephen Foster song as a starting point, stretching the phrasing and harmonic underpinnings with a measured tautness. “Part III” starts out with simple threads which grow increasingly intertwined, using multi-dimensional parameters of harmonic and temporal density and volume along with the traditional canon form to stunning effect as the piece moves in and out of tonality, massing angular clusters and skittering lines off of each other. “Old Paint,” a compact refraction of the traditional cowboy song serves as a miniature, turning the melody inside out in the piano part and introducing percussive sounds against the plaintive singing of the lyrics.
Polansky’s “k-toods” take simple mathematical functions (additive processes, non-overlapping sets, replacement rules) and play them out in five short pieces that loosely chart Polansky’s musings as a father. With titles like “k-toods: growth spurt”, “k-toods: tween,” or “k-toods: baby pictures” the dual piano parts romp against each other with a playfulness and levity. The set finishes out with two solo “Dismissions” based on a Shaker hymn which are stretched out, letting suspended notes resonate as chords move, creating odd harmonic shadow tracings as the pieces progress. Here the bottom register of the piano provides an anchor for the gradual flow of the two pieces. This strong program of piano compositions provides a great diving-in point to this composer and are well worth checking out.
Samo Salamon Bassless Trio
The Slovenian guitarist Samo Salamon is an eclectic who on this CD alternates Bill Frisellish folksiness with Kevin Eubanksish hyperactivity. This is the latest of several combos he’s led in which bass players are unnecessary. Some pieces feature Julian Arguelles tenor and soprano saxophone solos with guitar accompaniment, the others are built upon Salamon’s fuzz-toned low chords, with Arguelles, usually the foreground figure, joining in the frenzy. Yet it’s Salamon who manipulates each piece from behind or in front. Within a small range he’s a colorist. He’s aided mightily by the sensitivity of drummer John Hollenbeck, who applies different sound colors for every piece on his tuned percussion. His is an eight-to-the-bar time, he’s mostly quiet to fit Salamon’s gentleness, and the two tend to complementary dialogue. There’s also “Holla Back,” in which guitar and tenor play a slow, slow line while Hollenbeck very busily, actively improvises with what seems to be every sound his kit can produce.
“Sound Garden” is a guitar freak out, swooping and super busy, with a wild climax of soprano and (for a change) crashing drums – but it’s not frenzied; Salamon won’t let the fun get out of control. More typical are the down-tempo pieces. In them Arguelles offers attractive sax sounds and a style that suggests an Ornette turned decorative, sometimes florid. In the pastoral pieces “Dawn” (on tenor) and “Moonless” (on soprano) he skates by on up-down licks. Salamon composed all ten pieces. “Asking for a Break” is almost a 1950s Lighthouse All-Stars theme; then the tenorist and Salamon develop a ping-pong chase into a heated but not quite hot duet. There’s a pretty modal piece, “Seagulls in Maine”; by contrast there’s “Kei’s Secret,” a series of almost static colors that reminds me of some old Beach Boys instrumentals. All in all, it’s a bright-sounding, skillful album that’s also a bit too polite for this ill-mannered listener.
Marco Scarassatti + Eduardo Chagas/ +Gloria Damijan + Abdul Moimême
Creative Source CS332
Rumor is a studio session by four musicians who had recently performed together for the first time during the 2014 MIA improvisation festival in Lisbon. It joins two international visitors – Brazilian Marco Scarassatti on sound sculptures and self-made instruments and Austrian Gloria Damijan on piano and the insides of a toy piano including metal tone bars – with Lisboan Eduardo Chagas, playing trombone and objects and Abdul Moimême playing prepared electric guitar, with them all using various unidentified objects.
It’s a particularly fortuitous meeting because of how closely attuned the musicians are to one another. Each is as much a sound artist as a conventional musician, often working with complex events (sounds, noises) that are not reducible to pitches, regular rhythms or linear development. As heard here, each is a gestural player, sometimes given to singular events that resonate through the ensemble. The focus on creation is so intense, that this hardly seems like a performance, more like a kind of collective brain breathing. Just as the musicians are free to assemble multiple kinds of sounds and relationships, so too is the listener free to assemble the experience, whether it’s heard as a mysterious Ur-narrative or a laminal space in which various layers interact, in ways both intentional and otherwise.
The identities of the instruments are sometimes unclear, testament to both the players’ invention and the degree to which individual personalities are surrendered to the work. There’s a great deal of percussion here, and the sounds of piano, toy piano and table-top guitar readily converge. An incidental sound can suggest insects or a power tool. Even Chagas’ trombone, perhaps the most identifiable instrumental sound here, can blur into quiet cradle utterances or an electronic drone, while his occasional reduction to the sound of breathing emphasizes the human core of work that’s gestural and expansive, with sounds seeming to expand both outwardly into an industrial garden and inwardly to an expanding sense of resonance. By the conclusion of the second improvisation, the sounds seem to quietly swarm, only to reach a peak and fade rapidly away into a few percussive incidents.
On The Bell, Ches Smith’s excellent new trio plays lightly with open and predetermined forms. There’s a powerful, and deceptively simple, sense of proportion to the drummer-vibraphonist’s design. He’s clearly arrived with cues, set melodic patterns, vamps – a starting point in some pieces, a destination in others, shades and suggestions for improvisation.
This way of working is second-nature to pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri. Taborn is central to the music’s basic architecture: echoing figures, turning short motifs into hypnotic motion, a ballast in your mind’s ear as the pieces unfold. Maneri slices and glides in and around the figures. He is magnificent here: his deep viola sound given a nearly baroque power in production, even when, at times, he pushes into something approaching metal. Smith himself is always terrifically compact; on kit or vibes, adding layers of cymbal color or pushing towards a post-rock fury, there’s something quietly controlled about how he operates.
Two pieces – “It’s Always Winter (Somewhere)” and “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth” – might give you an accurate sense of, and might be more germane titles for, the date. The record’s overarching tone, mirroring Caterina di Perri’s haunting cover photo, turns inward, and stays: gray, searching, intense.
Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith
a cosmic rhythm with each stroke
Wadada Leo Smith/John Lindberg
TUM CD 046
In the past five years alone Wadada Leo Smith has released a significant body of work that many would be happy with had it represented the whole of their careers. From intimate duo albums with Louis Moholo-Moholo and Bill Laswell, and his trio Mbira to last year’s The Great Lakes Suites and the monumental Ten Freedom Summers, Smith is on a creative streak that few in the history of the music can match. His two latest albums return to the duo format, where he teams up with two of his closest collaborators, Vijay Iyer and John Lindberg.
Iyer, who refers to Smith as his “hero, friend, and teacher for nearly two decades,” played in Smith’s Golden Quartet from 2005 to 2010. Their stunning new disc for ECM, a cosmic rhythm with each stroke, is an outgrowth of the approach the pair took while playing in the Golden Quartet, where in Iyer’s words, they “became a unit-within-the-unit, generating spontaneous duo episodes as formal links.” This album demonstrates the strength of Iyer and Smith’s unity, and their masterful construction and combination of these new duo episodes transcends their origins, becoming the basis for a luminous and capacious whole. The album’s centerpiece is the seven part title suite, commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art for its 2016 Met Breuer exhibition Nasreen Mohamedi, and is dedicated to and draws its inspiration from the work and journals of the Indian artist.
Iyer’s composition “Passage” opens the album and introduces the suite’s sonic world. Although he occasionally comes to the fore, Iyer mostly serves as accompanist to Smith. His mix of ascending and descending arpeggiated figures, and repeated and sequenced patterns, lays the foundation for Smith’s long held notes and declarations. Throughout the suite Iyer and Smith’s relationship becomes more nuanced as Iyer’s changing accompaniments inspire Smith, put him in new contexts, and sometimes serve as the seed for Iyer’s solos. At other times, the pair fills spots left open by the other, lay out, and engage in a dynamic dialogue. The suite’s third piece, “Labyrinths,” begins with Iyer’s running left hand, and a hurried and scurrying Smith. The pair varies textures and dynamic levels, while moving in and out of time and from angular to more fluid moments. One of the suite’s highlights is the mysterious and evocative “Uncut emeralds.” Iyer’s abstract, quiet, and sparse opening – enhanced by plenty of sustain pedal – has colors reminiscent of a sped up Morton Feldman; Iyer’s piano shimmers. Smith enters and the pair trade short notes and gestures, using as much silence as sound. They become more active, with Iyer dropping heavier chords before giving way to a Smith solo, under which Iyer adds a slight wash of electronics. Iyer makes greater use of his subtle and largely ambient electronics on “All becomes alive” and “A divine courage” – which mostly consist of low-end drones and simple bass ostinatos – along with his quietly glowing Fender Rhodes on the suite’s final piece, “Notes on water,” adding further intrigue and color.
The album ends with Smith’s “Marian Anderson,” which is slightly freer and more abstract than the suite, and features an alternating series of solos and duos before closing with 20 seconds of silence. One of the album’s most compelling features is its logical framework, which is especially the case on the suite. Whether agreeing upon a rough roadmap beforehand, or working it out in the moment (that it is unclear makes the feat even more impressive), Iyer and Smith create a narrative that captivates and draws the listener ever closer to the music. Given the album’s excellence and amount of critical acclaim Iyer and Smith have received in recent years, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a cosmic rhythm with each stroke at the top of several year-end best of lists and critics polls. It is a significant accomplishment.
John Lindberg’s relationship with Smith goes back decades, having first played with him in 1978 when both were members of Anthony Braxton’s Creative Orchestra. Following the death of Malachi Favors in 2004, Lindberg took over the bass chair in the newly reformed Golden Quartet, which also featured Iyer. Although Lindberg and Smith have played together as a duo since they first met, Celestial Weather on TUM Records – which has released several of Smith’s recent works – is their first duo recording.
The album opens with Smith’s two-part composition, “Malachi Favors Maghostut.” Like the rest of the album the piece is a testament to the ability of these master improvisers to converse through music. The first part finds Smith alternating serpentine lines with stretched phrases and mixing his clean, cleaver tone with rougher, splintered shards; Lindberg moves from arco to pizzicato and back, showing off his extremely clean tone, true intonation, and dexterous facility; and the two simultaneously play similar and complementary lines with nearly identical phrase lengths. If one finds a moment of inspiration, the other recedes to let his partner go. Part two contains some of the most stimulating music on the album. Smith and Lindberg begin with a near unison line to introduce a bass solo. A few seconds of silence follow the solo, setting up a lengthy call and response section. It may be too much to interpret Lindberg taking up the role of Favors, but if that is the case, one hears Smith calling out to his friend and musical partner, with Lindberg (as Favors) answering “I’m here, I feel you.” It is highly affecting.
Like a cosmic rhythm with each stroke, Celestial Weather showcases a title suite. “The Celestial Weather Suite” is comprised of five freely improvised pieces: “Cyclone,” “Hurricane,” “Icy Fog,” “Typhoon,” and “Tornado.” While the titles would suggest a programmatic aspect to the music, one does not necessarily hear a cyclone or hurricane, although one may interpret Lindberg’s high and quickly repeated arco notes and Smith’s frantic blowing as signifying a fast and powerful wind. However, such figures appear in non-meteorological contexts. The pieces of the suite often have a similar dynamic, approach, technique, mood and atmosphere (no pun intended) both in and beyond the suite. Perhaps the general lack of an obvious programmatic distinction can be explained by the fact that cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons are the same meteorological phenomenon that are only distinguished by their location. Or that may be reading too far into the matter. The album concludes with “Feathers and Earth,” a two-part composition by Lindberg. The first part takes on a more somber and reflective mood, while the second begins with a spirited rhythmic section that serves as a nice contrast to what has preceded it.
Celestial Weather – despite the evocative titles of the suite’s individual pieces – is quite abstract. There is little musically, such as tempos, meters, or large narrative arcs, to ground the music and to serve as a point of reference for the listener. The music’s grounding force is Smith and Lindberg’s long personal and musical relationship. One hears their mutual respect, friendship, and intimate musical knowledge. Celestial Weather is one long series of in-depth conversations, where each man carefully listens to his friend and responds in kind with care and generosity. It can be a difficult listen, as it is extremely nuanced, contains a great deal of information, and requires as much attention as any music can. While some may bristle at its difficulty and the continual abstraction, it rewards and edifies as all great art does.
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