Friday, February 26, 2010

James MacMillan's New Opera "The Sacrifice"

Like most kids of my generation I was first exposed to opera in what was probably the worst possible context, on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sandwiched between jugglers, cabaret acts, comedians, puppets and the latest pop/rock star was something that Ed introduced with a laconic "And now, Italian opera star ____ _____." Out would come some overweight person singing something in an incomprehensible language, with plenty of emotion, but who knew why? If this was opera, I didn't like it at all. Of course if you already knew the opera from which the aria was ripped asunder, if one knew the singer and liked him or her, in short, if you already knew and liked opera, this was probably an enjoyable three minutes. If not, not.

It was only later, when I had discovered classical music for myself, in the form of piano and orchestral music, that I branched out and discovered that opera was a good thing, slowly (through excerpts like the "Toreador Song") and then one afternoon when the high school music department attended a Met matinee of Lucia di Lammermoor, surely.

I sometimes wonder how the youth of today will be exposed to opera, if at all. There is no equivalent to the Ed Sullivan Show, bad as that was for understanding the art form. In the situation of new operatic works, I don't know of any that are especially suited to convince non-operatic listeners that there is a world of enrichment and pleasure available for the taking.

Today's music is no exception. James MacMillan's The Sacrifice seems more keyed to those who already like the 30 or so operas that are continually performed throughout the world. This is MacMillan's bid to be the composer of number 31. It has a plot typical of operas of the late 19th century, a sort of Romeo & Juliet trajectory without much of the love element. The music is drenched in late romantic convention for the most part. The performance on a new Chandos two-CD set is a live one made originally for consumption by the BBC; it is quite respectable; it is not perfect either sonically or musically.

Nonetheless The Sacrifice has some real musical weight. There are recurring themes that can captivate, there is a wealth of orchestral detail (in fact the orchestral interludes are perhaps what I find most interesting) and there is some attention to the curve of dramatic development, some time given over to rousing crowd scenes with chorus, some moving duets and a general solid quality to it all. I will say that it does not especially overwhelm in its modernity (mostly, it isn't) nor does the libretto seem particularly poignant to me. The daughter of a general of one warring political faction agrees to marry the principal head of the opposing faction. Her former lover makes vengeance by various violent acts; the husband-political-opponent accidentally kills the general in a mistaken identity retaliation, and everyone has something to learn from it. As with the conclusion of West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet, "all are punish-ed," sort of. If we start realizing today that humanity seems to learn nothing from the senseless violence in the name of a cause, with or without the romantic interest element, that should not deter us from acknowledging that the theme seems still to be a powerful one. It is hard to top Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story, though, for all that.

I don't mean to be too flippant, because ultimately this work most certainly establishes James MacMillan as a composer of note, as a composer of substance. Anyone with an interest in contemporary operatic works should listen to this recording. One hundred years from now what will be the fate of The Sacrifice? I have no idea. In the interim it is certainly a work to appreciate. And if the youth of today will probably not flock to this opera, that does not mean they wont come to appreciate it in their later years. Who knows?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chris Kelsey: Not Cool, Hot

The title to Chris Kelsey's new CD is apt. Not Cool {...As in, "The Opposite of Paul Desmond"} (Tzazz Krytyk) is a burning ode to music making in the cauldron of molten sound. Chris Kelsey (his soprano, alto and tenor, his music) has been around for quite some time. After a hiatus from playing he returned in full flower in recent years and this is his latest. From the moment the band hits the deck running on the first cut, my first listen made me realize that I had been missing out on some strong playing. Chris burns through reeds with extreme power. He is "old school" to the extent that his music assumes the blowing ensemble format of pre-free bands, and the routines have a certain tip of the cap to avant garde traditions, but beholden debts all end there.

What you have is a crack post-bop free band of "first chair" quality. Kelsey plays incandescent reeds and writes out some drivingly sane charts for the band to cook over their hot stove. Chris Dimeglio, on trumpet, as Kelsey notes in the album liner, has absorbed the lessons to be learned from Don Cherry and Lester Bowie and taken things from there, and the rhythm section of Francois Grillot and Jay Rosen, bass and drums, stoke the flames with dedication, energy and flair.

Chris Kelsey shows that he is at the forefront of the fiery reedists today. The music is exhilarating, overflowing, brilliant. Check out this CD by all means (, then, like me, you are probably going to want to hear the recordings he made with Bob Rusch in the Cadence/CIMP series.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Connie Crothers and Michael Bisio in a Breathtaking Duet

Improvisational music depends so much on the time, place and inspiration of the players. Once in a while, we are all lucky that the tape is rolling when everything conjoins wonderfully.

Session at 475 Kent (Mutable) is just such a recording. The place is Connie Crothers' studio, with great acoustics and a congenial environment to make some music. The time is May of last year, so late spring is in the air, and, well, let's just say that this is one of the most moving performances of free improvisation I've heard in a long time.

Connie Crothers makes pianistic things happen. She has devoted her life to a style that cannot be easily classified; even less can she be dismissed as "follower of so-and-so." It's Crothers who has gone her own way from the time of her first album in the '70s through to today. She has deep roots in the music, but whether she chooses to evoke them directly or not becomes a part of a performance on any given occasion. She has a very fertile, musically inventive gift and a pianistic touch that puts her in with the world-class few who can really make the piano sing. She does here.

Michael Bisio in many ways parallels Connie in that he is a marvelously inventive bassist that seemingly has burst forth over the years as a musical trunk rather than a branch. His technique is formidable, both pizzicato and arco, and he taps into a virtually inexhaustible wellspring of musical ideas when he plays.

These are two artists that have a perfectly simpatico viewpoint of what is possible in a freewheeling improvisational setting. The music they make on this recording is pure magic. Do not miss it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ayler's "Spiritual Unity" and Influence

There are recordings that have become vastly influential with musicians and have also caught on with the general listening public. Miles Davis' Kind of Blue comes to mind. Then there are recordings that at least initially did not sell briskly but strongly influenced several generations of new jazz artists.

Certainly Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity (ESP) was one of the latter. When it came out in 1965 it supplied a vocabulary for the budding free saxophonist and just as importantly presented a model for the free rhythm section that remains very much alive today.

ESP has reissued the album as a CD, as a download and as an audiophile quality collector's edition LP.

It's not just Albert Ayler's tenor work that was rather revolutionary at the time. Gary Peacock's bass and Sunny Murray's drums were equally so. Peacock acted with maximal freedom and true virtuosity yet his playing was a continual commentary on the implication of the simple folk-like quality of the head melodies as well as Ayler's freely articulated excursions into expressive tenor sounds. Much has been made of comparing what Ayler played and the Pentecostal practice of "speaking in tongues." I'm not about to question the aptness of that analogy. More to the point free music derived much from the freneticism of his playing on these sides.

Perhaps most importantly Ayler established a much wider palette of sounds the tenor sax could regularly call upon: the throaty growls. dynamic lower register overblowing, piercing upper register falsettos and much else. After this album and several key others that followed, the expanded sound resources suggested by Ayler's work were adapted by many that followed in his wake, from late Coltrane onwards.

Then there is drummer Sunny Murray. He virtually invented the freely out-of-time style of drumming that has remained a critical stylistic aspect of the modern player. And one can hear how well enmeshed Sunny was in this way of going about it early on. Listen to how he interacts with Ayler and Peacock on Spiritual Unity and you will hear a master already fully formed.

The general public still may find this music a little shocking, perhaps abrasive. Compared to Kenny G. that is certainly so. (And of course that should tell you something about Kenny G. more so than Albert Ayler.) It took many years for a Beethoven or a Berlioz to gain general acceptance in the late classical-early romantic era. And there are still untutored ears that may find that music a little too "heavy." So with Albert. He has an intensity that the listener needs to assimilate to appreciate his music.

Spiritual Unity is one of those records that belongs in the collection of anyone serious about the roots of the jazz of today. It's that important and it's that good.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Toby Driver and His New Music

Composer-instrumentalist Toby Driver is the creative force behind the group Maudlin of the Well/Kayo Dot. From what I understand, the group manages to combine new metal styles with classical form and orchestration. I have not had the pleasure of hearing them, but I have had the pleasure of hearing Driver's second album for Tzadik, To The L...L...Library Loft.

There are four pieces on the record, each a world of its own. Driver's hyper-electric ensemble guitar gives three of the four pieces some added metallic weight. Greg Massi is the guitarist on the fourth work. Every piece makes a convincing case for the viability of Toby's vision. Metal and new music can indeed be transformed into a powerful amalgam.

The instruments and participants for each work form a particular chamber/rock configuration. A series of moods and sound environments result. Some are soundscapes where atmospheric sounds conjoin with metal-derived musical washes; others are more hard-edged.

I don't know of anyone else creating music like this. And it's not just that Toby Driver dares to create such hybrids; he does so with absolute musicality. These are works to live within and grow into. They are so unique that a first hearing left me mystified. By the fifth hearing I began to appreciate concretely what was happening on this disk. I still need to listen another, say, five or six times to really get to grips with it. That is how unprecedented and unusual Driver's music seems to me. What could be more interesting?

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Living Composers Anthology, Volume 15

I have not sampled any of the earlier volumes, but I have been listening to Erm Media's Masterworks of the New Era, Volume 15. It's a three CD set at a budget price, which is a good thing. There are generous time allocations per disk, so that you get a great deal of music to hear. There are 22 composers represented, people you may not have heard of, and again, that's generally a good thing for the music. Do you know Arnest? Flinn? Kapson? Probably not.

Robert Ian Winstin conducts, alternately, the Kiev Philharmonic and the Prague Radio Symphony in performances that seem quite good and the sound staging of the recordings is quite excellent.

So what of the music? Here I have reservations. There is such a wide net cast for works by living composers that the range of styles and relative weight of each piece can vary considerably. There are modernist sorts of pieces, there are postmodernist works, there are works one can only classify as conservative, and all that is fine if done well. Then there are those that seem a bit on the light side. Worst of all there are a one or two that sound to me like they could have been used as soundtracks for Doris Day's 1950's comedies or something similar. In short there are a few works here that to me spoil the effect of the others. Masterworks? Some definitely not.

On the other hand what is interesting here is in the majority. For the good price I suspect it's worth your while to invest in the volume if you have a need to discover some new voices in the music. A little judicious weeding out would have made this set even better. But for all that there are still quite a number of works that are well worth hearing.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Free Unfold Trio: Quiet Subtlety

Jobic Le Masson, piano, Didier Lassarre, drums, and Benjamin Duboc, bass, collectively form the Free Unfold Trio. Their second album, Ballades (Ayler) is a half-hour of quite subtle, quite free and quite intriguing music. Like some of Paul Bley's excellent trio work of the mid-to-late '60s, they are out to realize a reflective mood, to react as a three-voiced musical being to their muse.

And they do so with much charm and much to hear within the short time span allotted. Understandably, pianist Le Masson has the most prominent voice in the proceedings, but Lasserre and Duboc bring all their interpretive powers into play.

Ballades may even out-do Bley for a laconic, inner-directedness. And of course the classic Bill Evans trios come to mind, but only as a reference. This trio is even more restrained than Bill's in their most impressionistic phase. That is saying something. Most importantly they do what they do not for effect. The music is a genuine expression of where they are at the moment. So it seems to me.

If you like the darker shades of the piano trio in a ballad mode, this will certainly bring you much pleasure. It did for me.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

David Simons and the Transformation of Sound Worlds

Composer David Simons disregards the borders between modern concert music and DIY ethnic music and he does it with a flair. This second album for Tzadik, Fung Sha Noon, shows this tendency admirably. Essentially there are four contrasting pieces on the program. "Odentity" takes Harry Partch's instruments and composes something new for them. Not surprisingly, the ghost of Partch hovers over the proceedings and the sound of the music reflects this. It is quite fascinating to hear this Partch/not Partch music and it shows you that Partch's ensemble of instruments has plenty of life left in it for those who feel the inspiration.

"Uncle Venus" follows with a strings plus gamelan lineup and an attractive ambiance that makes as much use of the space between sounds as the sounds themselves.

The two part "Music for Theremin and Gamelan" takes the timeless qualities of gamelan music and stretches them, modernizes them to suit Simons' concept. The theremin gives the ensemble an eerie lead voice and the violin-viola soundblock effectively provides a third color for the ensemble. It's all an indication of how Simons has internalized musical traditions and made them over to the music in his head.

For the finale, David Simons performs a solo piece for an array of percussion instruments, including the found onject of everyday life: cans, bottles and such.

This may not become a barn-storming blockbuster out there in musical-commerce-land. What it is is rather remarkable and thoroughly captivating. There's nothing of the tentative experiment in all this. This is fully formed David Simons music.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Recording of Roy Harris's Symphonies Five and Six

Naxos Records is in the process of releasing the complete cycle of symphonies by American composer Roy Harris. That can only be a good thing, especially if the present volume is any indication.

Harris's (1898-1979) reputation as an important composer in the modern post-Ivesian mode seems to have waned sometime in the late '50s, only to revive again in the past decade or so. Perhaps it was easy to take him for granted during a period where the very latest advancement of new music got fleeting, flavor-of-the-month attention at the expense of composers who weren't radically breaking with tradition but nonetheless created a body of works that had lasting value.

I do not wish to imply that there isn't much of lasting value in the more avant composers of that era, but that's another matter. Harris was certainly one of those in the less sensational, less "advanced" category, along with Piston, William Schumann and a handful of others. His World War II Era symphonies were more overtly nationalist, at least in sentiment, than some of the earlier and later works. In any event they remain excellent examples of the Harris style, long unwinding melodies changing hands among instrumental groups, crisp, clear orchestrations, a bracing, restrained lyricism. Listen to the sonorous, majestic, martial strains remembered in solitude as worked out in the Second Movement of his Fifth Symphony if you need convincing.

Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony give carefully but passionately rendered performances of these works. The added bonus of the miniature work "Acceleration," later reworked into the Sixth Symphony, gives a nice finishing touch to the presentation.

Highly recommended listening. . .

Monday, February 15, 2010

Evan Parker, The Redwood Session, 1995

Saxophonist Evan Parker has been one of the most consistently challenging of instrumentalists in avant garde improvisational music since his first appearances in the sixties. He is virtually without peer as a sound color painter with a brightly bold pallet. He gets sounds from his soprano and tenor that take advantage of alternate fingerings, embouchure manipulation and other unconventional techniques. There is a series of sounds he has made all his own, and his unusual phrasing and unleashing of torrents of notes in the course of an improvisation make him instantly recognizable among those who follow the music.

Not every album he has made, however, is indispensable. That's only natural for such a prolific artist. When in 1995 he gather together in Rossie, NY with some of the "all-stars" of improv, something special was bound to result. It is hard to imagine more congenial fellow improvisors than these: Barry Guy, a bassist of complete technique, utterly personal sound, and the seeming one-to-one ability to play what he imagines, as he imagines it; then Paul Lytton on the drums, a man of great energy and another important sound innovator on his instrument; lastly, for the final number Joe McPhee joins the group on trumpet and adds the lucid improvisational voice that belongs to him alone.

There of course is the potential of a particular group of artists and there is what they actually do on any given date. The Redwood Session (CIMP) is a happy occasion where the potentials are realized in all their fullness. This is a set of music that startles with sheer power, tickles with its playful ruminations, excites with its terrific energy and devastates with its near-perfect realization of conceptual rigor.

What I particularly like about this session is the complete synchrony of all the members. There are deluges of musical content that come at you in waves, and all the players are keyed into one another to the extent that those waves are constructed nearly perfectly by the entire group. Evan and company phrase the deluges exceptionally well. The music is free but there is an remarkable telepathy among group members, so that the freedom is structured in the spontaneity of the moment, in the sympathetic resonances of each player to the musical thinking of the other players.

This is a monumental achievement in improv. It should be heard by anyone interested in this kind of music. It may not have gotten all the attention it deserves in past years, but it remains absolutely vital. And it is still in print!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Avner Dorman, Promising Young Composer

Avner Dorman was born in 1975. That makes him a bit less than young in the way society views it. As a composer, though, that's still "young." His latest Naxos release of concertos, for mandolin, piccolo, piano and concerto grosso, respectively, finds him looking back at baroque forms and applying them to a music sensibility tempered by our place in today's world.

When I first listened I was almost startled by a brief musical passage (in the Concerto Grosso) that had the earmarks of an influence, of Estonian composer Arvo Paert. It hit me then that Avner Dorman is doing for the baroque and early classical periods what Paert has done for medieval-renaissance music. He has taken some of the forms, colors and structural aspects of baroque-classical music and done them over to suit his own musical consciousness. He has made the old "new." And he has done that without falling prey to the direct influences of those 20th century masters of the "neo," most particularly Stravinsky in his neo-classical period.

Instead, Avner Dorman writes Avner Dorman music. Each of the concertos on this disc, performed with real brio and devotion by Andrew Cyr and the Metropolis Ensemble, has the clarity and directness of a baroque concerto. But the musical language is different. There is a compactness of expression, a delicacy of delivery, a restrained lyricism not super-saturated in romantic or late romantic emotionalism.

Dorman could well be an important voice in the concert music of our era. It's too soon to say. It is not too soon to recommend this CD. It delivers a music that has all the freshness of the first spring flower.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Piazzolla and Pujol: Concerted Tango Works Beguile in New Recording

The tango has a colorful history and remains a popular dance form with a sophisticated body of music behind it. As an art form it reaches perhaps its highest expression in three concerted works for bandoneon, guitar and orchestra in the newly released Luminosa Buenos Aires (Musicmedia). The Orchestra da Camera and soloists give a wonderful performance of the pieces. Astor Piazzolla, THE master of this sort of thing, weighs in with two lyrical, passionate yet subtle works.

The centerpiece of the disk is the world premier recording of Maximo Diego Pujol's 2009 work Double Concerto "Luminosa Buenos Aires" and it is a gem.

This is superior melodicizing in compelling performances. If you can imagine liking this one, I don't believe you will be disappointed!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jessica Pavone's Chamber Music Based on Leonard Cohen

The post-before serious music world is not unlike the contemporary visual arts situation. It is OK to evoke any previous style, combine it with other contrasting styles, bring in "popular' elements, in short, do whatever seems to work for the artist.

Jessica Pavone's Songs of Synastry and Solitude (Tzadik) fits comfortably in with that. It's a suite of pieces for string quartet, with contrabass replacing the usual second violin part. The music is based on songs from Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate. However it is not necessary to search slavishly for original motifs and whatnot from Mr. Cohen's work to appreciate the music. It stands on its own.

This is tonal music that has a lyrical, reflective, well balanced kind of sobriety to it. That doesn't mean it's overly somber, though it has that quality. It is music that transcends modernity without reverting to some overt form of neo-romanticism or neo-classicism. It's just neo. And quite an intriguing listen.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Remarkable Vocal Music of Baird Hersey III

On these pages we've covered Baird Hersey's first overtone singing album Waking the Cobra (1999), and his collaboration with Krishna Das, Gathering in the Light (2007). Today we backtrack a bit and look at his first album (2004) with the vocal group Prana, The Eternal Embrace (Hersey Music).

Prana is an acapella vocal ensemble devoted to Baird's ethereal music. The Eternal Embrace takes as its starting point a series of meditations on the eight limbs of yoga, as set forth in ancient times by Yoga Master Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. Now I do not know enough about yoga to comment of the relationship of the music to the text, except to say that the goal of Yoga as set forth in the precepts, viz "the stillness of the mind," seems to be mirrored in microcosm in the music presented here.

As with Baird's musical practices in the earlier Waking the Cobra, drones, long sustained chords, exceptional overtone singing and an overall feeling of stillness and quiet (NOT stagnancy) pervade the tone of the music. Influences include Buddhist chant, especially from Tibet, post-modern concert music, and a general South Asian influence. There is an organic relation of the music and the human aspiration through the breath. This is music that breathes deeply and profoundly.

The Eternal Embrace is another exceptional effort, moving to hear, and shows Prana to be a remarkably able body of singers, eminently suited to realize Baird Hersey's vision.

Highly recommended!

Monday, February 8, 2010

David Mott's "Downtown Runout"

Baritone saxophonist and composer David Mott steps forward once again for one of his most satisfying recordings to date. Downtown Runout (SOCAN/ features the lengthy self-titled suite plus a closing piece, as performed by David's quintet of quite capable but perhaps lesser known Canadian musicians, in a quintet lineup of baritone, tenor, trumpet, bass and drums.

It's ensemble music of a free but structured bent. The interplay of free ensemble with written compositional themes keeps the music focused and allows for a heightened fullness of sound and concept. It is a tour de force of David Mott's considerable talents as a composer, improviser and band leader. Those new to Mr. Mott's music could well start here. Fascinating and lucid thematic concept and execution put this release in the inner sanctum of recent serious jazz offerings.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Andrew Drury Captured Live on a Very Good Night

Andrew Drury as a drummer-bandleader may not be the most familiar commodity out there among listeners. Yet based on the evidence of his My Fingers Will Be Your Tears, recently and happily issued as a Cadence Jazz CD, he probably should be. First of all, he knows "how to pick them." The recording combines Drury, Briggan Krauss and Myra Melford as a trio. That turns out to be a very good thing. Briggan Krauss on alto is a dynamically inspired force here and Myra Melford on piano shows why she is one of the most important and eloquent players in the post-Cecil (Taylor)-not Cecil (Taylor) mode. Andrew's drumming brings out the virtues of the musical forms suggested by the various pieces and he also just sounds good, whatever the context.

The recording comes out of a live date at NYC's open-ended Roulette club, 2004. Clearly the presence of a sympathetic audience puts the group in a special place.

This is improvisation/free-ish jazz that you might play for someone who wants to know what that music is all about. It has that bellwether quality to it. Excellent music for both those new to this form and those well-versed in it. It's one of my favorite things right now.

Go to the Cadence website ( for further details.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Minamo Blurs the Distinction Between Composition and Improvisation

Minamo teams violinist Carla Kihlstedt with pianist Satoko Fujii. These are world-class musicians, accomplished instrumentalists, composers, improvisers. The two-CD release Kuroi Kawa~Black River (Tzadik) provides a birds-eye aural view of the duo live and in the studio.

You will hear wildly creative improvisations for violin and prepared piano, for example, as well as rather carefully crafted compositions of expressively wrought sound worlds. The duo makes a musically cogent argument in favor of the increasingly reasonable proposition that today's "serious" music need not draw sharp dividing lines between improvisation and composition. On one level this is rather obvious and not really a new idea. On another level there is new found currency in the working out of a viable synthesis between "New Music" coming out of the concert-classical camp and "Improvisation" that has evolved from the avant jazz arena. Of course the two stylistic approaches have much in common and their combination can generate fruitful creative results. That is dramatically shown on the disk at hand.

Kuroi Kawa provides the listener with a very interesting and listenable recital of modern chamber music. It is both a musically stimulating experience and a tribute to the formidable musical minds of Carla Kihlstedt and Satoko Fujii.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Network of Sparks' First Reissued

Ever since Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain formed the Diga Rhythm Band for a short period of time in the early '70s, the nexus between progressive rock, various world musics and percussion rhythms and styles has been a very fertile one for creative music. Pete Lockett's Network of Sparks was in the front ranks of the very best of such projects.

Their excellent album One (Summerfold), recorded in 1999, has just been reissued. It features Bill Bruford and covers a wide spectrum of stylistic syntheses, from intricate drum set duets and minimalist-Gamelan influenced mallet/percussion grooves to Indian influenced cycles and other world traditions, all flavored strongly by the prog rock frame of mind.

Like the Diga Band, there are nicely worked out ensemble routines and a keen attention to the subtle combination of instruments and sound colors possible. This is percussion as art. It is very good to have One available again.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Russian New Jazz From the New Generation Quartet

Siberian drummer Sergei Belichenko belongs to the original generation of dedicated Russian improvisational artists, along with his compatriot bassist Dimitri Averchenkov. They join with younger but no less dedicated musicians Vladimir Timofeev on tenor and pianist Roman Stolyer to form the New Generation Quartet. Their download-only album Dances (Ayler) captures them in a Novosibirsk State Broadcast made in 2000. It may be ten years ago that they set down their improvisations for posterity, but the results do not show any aging.

Like the best improvisational adventures do, the sound produced reflects in some way who the players are, their culture, what they grew up listening to around them, the aural soundscape we all experience from childhood on up. How that translates to the music at hand of course involves creative facilities of the complicatedly advanced sort.

So this set does not sound like what a New York based improvisational group of today would be playing, say, at the Stone. At least not necessarily. Like the Ganelin Trio before them, the New Generation Quartet has a panoramic approach to their art. There's a rather wide sweep, broad brush strokes of references and transformations that come into play. "Two-Step Blues," for example, in part invokes the blues tonality (especially in the tenor) but it also hints at the dance rhythms in the air of our planet in earlier days or today in more remote regions, as well as phrasings and group interactions influenced by modern concert chamber music, along with a sort of madcap post-freebop drive off the edge of a cliff. (And a descent into the ensuing maelstrom that seems the right way to fall, or at last one of them!)

But the New Generation Quartet cannot be pinned down, so one gets all kinds of things going on, stylistic sidebars of folkish melody, rhapsodic piano-horn statements that suddenly go to a rockish feel in the manner of the classic old Charles Lloyd Quartet, and more besides.

This group obviously enjoys what they are doing. It's infectious. Here's modern improvisation that communicates a benevolent vibe. They sound good. Maybe Siberia isn't so bad a place to come from? Why not? This music affirms the creative musical act and also affirms a position in time and space while transcending it by converting all to centrifugal sound. A good showing!

You can only get this recording as a digital download from Ayler Records. The price is quite modest and the sound is good. Go to their site at for more information.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Empty Cage Quartet

The Empty Cage Quartet often gives equal play to all four of its members in the heady mix of their new CD Gravity (Clean Feed). Jason Mears (alto and clarinet), Kris Tiner (trumpet), Ivan Johnson (double bass) and Paul Kikuchi (drums and percussion) have plenty to say musically and they do so by kicking into improvisational variations on two thematic constructs, "Gravity" and "Tzolkien," alternatingly through the program.

This is avant-free improvisation with a kind of classic ring to it. It takes as its starting point the tradition coming out of Ornette's early work and the NY Contemporary Five, among others, and yet they can go far beyond that starting point into rarified collective ensemble territory. Plus each player has his own stylistic take on the music. Kikuchi can play free time or tempoed passages with inventiveness and Johnson's bass never coasts on the free cliches available. Mears and Tiner make for a formidable two-man front line and impress much for how they interpret worked out passages and extend them with two-way dialogues. The "written" and the improvised balance together seamlessly and avoid the head-solo-head schemata so ingrained in much of the music.

This is performance art of the first rank. If these folks were part of the plastic-visual arts scene, their leave-behinds would probably be selling for lots of money. In the world of musical improvisation, such things don't ordinarily happen. The good news is you can buy this CD at the usual going rate. It's an "original" no less. As listeners this should make us happy. At any rate Gravity has that effect on me!