Monday, May 31, 2010

Sonny Simmons Stays On the Watch, 1966

When earlier in the year we spoke of the "two Sonny Simmons's" I never suggested that the first period of Sonny's work was anything but extraordinary, just that the comeback period of Simmons's music often is as well.

So in a timely way, ESP is re-releasing his first album for the label, Staying on the Watch, recorded back in 1966. What's extraordinary about this album? For one thing, the rhythm section of a young yet assured and fiery John Hicks on piano, a solid Teddy Smith on bass, and an incandescent Marvin Pattillo on drums really kicks this band through the paces. They are afire.

Second, trumpeter Barbara Donald is at a peak. She sputters and blazes brassily, adapting the hard bop of a Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard and taking it out in her own way. And Sonny sounds just magnificent. He and Barbara meld on the heads of the group numbers and just blaze forth. His playing by this point does not have any obvious derivatives. He has the intensity of a later Coltrane and the angularity of Ornette, but a kinetic firestorm of ideas and his hard, blistering tone make for pure Sonny.

Check out Sonny's eastern-influenced dervishness on the sax-bass duet "A Distant Voice," one of the first duets to be recorded and so a pioneering effort and a foreshadowing of many such groupings to come in the new jazz. Most importantly though it showcases a second side of Sonny's melodic approach, again wholly original and I can say without the least bit of hype or hyperbole, breathtaking.

There are an awful lot of great Sonny Simmons records. This is one of them!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bengt Nordstrom in Terrific Form

The late Swedish tenor-clarinetist Bengt Frippe Nordstrom was an interesting stylist in the free zone. We covered an Ayler download release of his music earlier in the year, and I mentioned that, while that release had lots of interesting moments, there were other releases that were more definitive representations of his music.

Today we take a look at one of them. Frippe (Ayler) (2-CDs) documents his Environmental Control Office group at a Swedish club in 1988. It turns out that this was the last recording of the band and it's a good one.

Bjorn Alke and Peeter Uuskyla, bass and drums respectively, have a good loose togetherness throughout, whether it's a matter of swingtime, freetime, or a kind of rock beat feel. Lars Svanteson's violin playing has a post-Ornette outness that gives a nice timbral contrast to what Bengt is doing. Lars makes a worthy contribution to the direction and content of the solid block of improvisation over the course of the CD set.

Nordstrom puts in a very nice set of performances. He solos at length on tenor showing the eccentrically wide Albert vibrato in phrases that are short and explosive. On clarinet he sounds rather unique. Either way though his manner of melodic contouring shows an affinity with middle-period Don Cherry. There are fragments of folk and classical melodies taken up and discarded at will. There is a multi-keyed diatonic humming-to-yourself sort of stream of consciousness to his playing, spiked by outside eruptions.

Fripp hangs together from the first strains to the last. It gives solid and quite absorbing evidence of the importance of Nordstrom in the Swedish free music scene. And it's good listening.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ken Vandermark & Free Music Ensemble, 2005

Something about Ken Vandermark, and by extension the Free Music Ensemble as represented on Montage (Okka Disk), playing it safe is never an option. By "playing it safe," I mean a sort of free blowing blow-out that, while there is nothing wrong with it and it can give the listener an exhilarated experience, has a sort of built-in safety factor.

What the Free Music Ensemble does on these two live dates is beyond blow-out. They work with contrasting group dynamics, they allow for various instrumental combinations and densities, they get into a variety of propulsive channels, and they have worked out compositional elements that spark the music and set up the blowing segments in a nice way. Now of course there are many groups who do this, but Vandermark and company do it so well.

That is in no small part due to his colleagues in this group. Nate McBride is a bassist that can maintain interest and momentum with all the available free bass techniques and knows when any given attack will work best for the moment at hand. Drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is a really sensitive instrument who can bash or get cosmically sound-oriented when needed, in ways that bring out the vibe of any given segment.

Ken Vandermark is one of those reed players who finds varied and rewarding projects and excels within each consistently. Here Ken unleashes an ensemble of reed instruments, clarinet, baritone, bass clarinet, tenor, etc., and does something interesting on each one. He has been at the forefront of free players for a pretty long time now and he's the sort of artist I look forward to hearing regardless of the context.

Montage gives you two CDs of great live trio music. You should not miss it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Patty Waters, 1965

It was December 19, 1965 when singer Patty Waters entered RLA Sound Studios in NYC to record her first record. Half of the date was devoted to her intimate, smoky chanteuse, bohemian Julie London-like torchers, with just her voice and her piano; for the second half she was joined by pianist Burton Greene’s trio. Patty’s session was soon released on ESP Disk as Patty Water Sings. It has just been reissued.

Timing in at around 30 minutes, the album is just long enough to get a good picture of Ms. Waters’ two facets. The short and evocative ballads show a moody side, the arrangement of the old folk song “Black is the Color” shows the other side. It’s dark. Burton Greene plucks strings inside the piano while bass and drums play freely. Ms. Waters starts at a whisper and climaxes in an angst ridden scream on the word “black.” It’s a tremendous moment and probably still has the capacity to shock the unwary listener. There aren’t too many things left from 1965 that can still do that. This is an important slice of an improv/jazz moment in time. It’s too bad she only made one more album but very good to have this one in print. You can check it out at the ESP website. See my links column. Originally posted on February 12, 2009 at

Jon Hassell, Reporting from the Moon

Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes On the Street (ECM). OK that's the title of Jon Hassell's fairly recent CD. I'll be honest. I really haven't caught his other albums so I have nothing to compare this to. I know he calls his music "Fourth World." That's cool but at least on this recording he sounds like a cosmic space cadet of the soundscape variety mixed with some very mellow, spacey Milesian almost-Funk.

I glanced at a review somebody else did, which I don't usually do, but I was looking for the cover image to drop in on this posting, and that person knew every album and what Hassell has been all about. I don't. In that sense I am playing Frozen Caveman Lawyer here.

It sounds like an ECM album, which will hardly surprise, since that's what it is. But there are more orchestral electronics in parts, so it is in no way generic ECM. Hassell's trumpet is plaintive and like a pilgrim searching, 'tho I do not know for what. Does any one of us know? He often uses a device that doubles his sound and he does it with subtlety, 'tho again if he didn't I am not the sort that would object. And there are all sorts of things going on behind him.

This is brown study stuff, music to send you off drifting and dreaming about things that I would hope are pleasant or profound, or both. Now I want to hear his earlier work. You who already know all about his music wont need me to say any more. I must say I liked this one. Perhaps I'll check in with a later posting after I've heard some of his other recordings.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Carol Morgan, Trumpet Extraordinaire

Women trumpeters in jazz? The Sweethearts of Rhythm had some, though I don't recall their names. Barbara Donald. Now there was a good one. Bold, brassy, harmonically advanced. I'm sure I am leaving out a number of them. But then there's Carol Morgan. Here's a player for you!

She's had a few albums out but Opening (Blue Bamboo) is the first with her trio: Morgan, Harvie S on bass and Rich Derosa on drums (and Woody Witt guesting on tenor & soprano).

Ms. Morgan has an appealing tone, somewhere between the alum puckerishness of Clark Terry and the quiet intensity of Chet Baker, perhaps, but not as fragile sounding. She is loquacious in her straight-ahead soloing. Hey, she's good!

The album mixes hard bop and American songbook standards (actually, only one of the latter) and some originals by Carol and drummer Derosa.

This is very solid horn and some very together performances. Horn players take note. Listeners, too!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Rissi/Mazzola/Geisser Power Through An Exciting Set

Mathias Rissi, alto and tenor sax, Guerino Mazzola, piano, and Heinz Geisser, drums, set up in a studio in Milan in 2006 to set down some free improvisations. That inspired session resulted in the album Herakleitos, which is available as an Ayler Download Release.

What grabs one is the course of the hour-long performance is both the energy and the resourcefulness of the improvisers. Mazzola has a Cecil-Taylor-like motor insistency but his own sort of cover-the-earth vocabulary. Geisser thrashes and bashes in ways that put the trio quickly into orbit. Rissi plays a potent blend of tumultuous phrases that establishes a singular voice in the free/outside mode. He has excellent control over his horns and expresses his musical mind with great variations in tone, a fertile imagination and no reservations whatsoever.

This is another winner in the Ayler catalog and yet another example of the vitality of the European free-avant scene.

Get it for cheap at

Friday, May 21, 2010

Kiva Presents Some Advanced Ensemble Improvisations

The group Kiva goes way back to 1975, when American trombonist/violinist John Silber and Franco-percussionist Jean-Charles Francois co-founded the ensemble at the Center for Music Experiment, University of California San Diego. Judging by the recording at hand, they created some very formidable group improvisations during the 16 years of their existence.

The self-titled two-CD set released on Pogus Productions documents four moments in their history: three lengthy musical discourses from 1985 and 1991, and a tape collage of various group performances assembled and re-realized by John Silber.

Essentially the group as represented here consists of the founding members plus Keith Humble on piano and synthesizer, and Mary Oliver on violin and viola for one of the performances. The collage segment seems to include additional members, which were often culled from students at the university.

That deals with the basic logistics. The music is what matters, of course. And the music is quite challenging. It is a series of excellently executed abstract improvisations that owe something to MEV, AMM, Il Gruppo and the improvisational ensembles led by Stockhausen, more so than the music created by, say, Albert Ayler or Evan Parker. This is more on the new music end of the spectrum. It isn't so much jazz-related.

They are in excellent form, whatever the stylistic parameters. The double CD set gives you a very generous amount of music and I must say it is all of a very high provenance. There is a sensuous revelling in the sound universes created. Nothing seems academic in the pejorative sense (a sense I do find a little disturbing, but yet I evoke anyway).

Kiva is an ensemble that could have easily been missed, I for one am very happy to have gotten the chance to hear them on this release. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Phil Kline & His Zippo Songs

OK, Phil Kline's song cycle Zippo Songs (Cantaloupe Music) has been available for some time now. If I am mentioning it today it is because it transcends the trendy and flavor-of-the-week sorts of come-and-go "product" that we find ourselves bombarded with every day.

Phil Kline created in this group of songs a kind of musical equivalent to Goya's Disasters of War paintings. It is based on the inscriptions soldiers in the Vietnam War scratched on their Zippo lighters. It's sometimes about a kind of gallows humor in the face of horror; then again the inscriptions sometimes communicate a despair that certainly is not at all ironic. They are invariably touching, moving, heart breaking.

The music is what of course puts this all over in a way that transforms it into art. We have a chamber ensemble of Todd Reynolds on violin, the composer on guitars and Dave Cossin on percussion. Theo Bleckmann takes on the vocal part, and he does so without using a trained, operatic sort of sound. This only serves to bring home the contemporaneity of the whole thing. There are electronic manipulations and double tracking passages that thicken the sound but of course that has been a consistent part of Phil Kline's sound and trademark.

I try not to read other reviews before I do one but I accidentally stumbled on a review of Zippo Songs by somebody; I don't recall who. It commented on the work's "brutality." Well certainly the music itself is not at all that in any systematic way. It is sad, reflective and a bit angry at times. But the music is so distinctive it does much more than parallel the lyrical content. It recreates the "looking at a distance" we necessarily experience looking back on a tragic event from a later time. That's in part the magic of this music. It's a tribute to the men and women who fought in that war and the absolute insanity of having to fight in it.

More than that, though, this is music that bears the Phil Kline stamp. It refuses to accept what the "modern classical" genre would dictate as to how the music sounds. It also refuses to accept what the "post-" mode would expect Mr. Kline to produce. There are moments of metal music, especially from the guitars, there are moments of a lyrical tenderness, there are influences of every sort of music Phil Kline has ever heard, I would think. And that's how it should be with a contemporary composer of his caliber.

We sometimes forget that a Haydn, a Mozart, a Beethoven enriched their compositional palettes by the music in which they were immersed as human beings in place and time. Hence interludes of "Turkish" music, references to the dance music of the era, and so on.

The difference between them and Phil Kline is that he is alive right now. And like the other composers I mention, this is not a matter of appropriation as it is of transformation. It isn't music about other music.

Zippo Songs I believe is one of the masterpieces of our current era; Phil Kline is one of our most important composers. But don't take my word for it. Listen.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

George Lewis, 1977: Shadowgraph

George Lewis recorded one of his first albums, Shadowgraph, in 1977. It was released on Black Saint in 1978. Now I suspect that everything that could be said has been said about this album. Nonetheless my blogs are in part an odyssey of my listening experiences in time, and if I do not address some of that there will be an imbalance, a lack of representative things I do listen to that perhaps nobody seems to send to me in the form of promo copies. So. . .

I am not sure why or how I missed this release when it first came out, except to say that 1978 began a long and somewhat distracting (to the music) journey I took in educational enlightenment and, later, protracted wage slavedom, which wasn't so bad because I managed to eat every day and pay the rent.

So there we are. Shadowgraph has an impressive lineup of musicians: Lewis, Douglas Ewart, Leroy Jenkins, Abdul Wadud, Anthony Davis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell...many of them prime AACM cats, all of them important Afro-American improvisers and most of them also important composers of the music.

The four pieces put down onto tape and assembled for the album are in the free-form chamber improvisation-jazz mode. Lewis introduces electronics in addition to his trombone and tuba, and everyone contributes. It is wonderfully subtle music. It sounds to me like one of the gems of that year, certainly. The sound color sculpting on this one is just superb, as is the very intelligent utilization of space by everyone involved.

Now if someone tells you that the '70s were a bust for "Jazz," play them this one and then send them packing. The fact is that the '70s were incredibly important years for the music. And George Lewis was right there in a central position. He's a fabulous trombonist, sure, but a composer-conceptualist of the very highest sort as well.

Perhaps my quick take on Shadowgraph will not satisfy those looking for detailed musical description. Well that's been done. This posting serves mostly as a reminder that one should not miss this recording if one has serious designs on understanding improvisation and its development in our era.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Paul Hartsaw Tentet in Chicago, 2004

As anyone who reads my blogs knows, Chicago is a territory of great interest to me musically. The same with Boston, New York, New Orleans and in the widest sense, Europe.

Why? Not to take away from other scenes, many of which produce good things, but these aforementioned locales produce new and exciting music on a consistent basis. I speak of the jazz/improv front.

So today if you don't mind I want to backtrack to a slightly earlier release by the Paul Hartsaw Tentet, Chicago 2004 (Metastablesound). This is a formidable lineup captured live. Paul Hartsaw plays the tenor and soprano sax, there are two musicans doing live electronics (among other things) and otherwise a kind of all-star Chicagoland cast that includes Josh Berman on cornet, Jeb Bishop, trombone, Keefe Jackson and Dave Rempis on reeds and Frank Rosaly on drums, along with several others with whom I am not as familiar.

The music alternates between collective freedom, swinging barnstorming outness, interesting written ensemble passages and pure adventure. Jeb Bishop plays a solo that steps up to your speakers and blows you out, but there is plenty of well-conceived and excellent music to be heard here. This one may be a little hard to find but it is well worth searching out. It is yet more evidence that Chicago keeps on shining with some blazingly sunny musical days.

Monday, May 17, 2010

3ology Teams with Ron Miles' Cornet in New Release

The group 3ology has ten years of playing together under their belt, and it most certainly shows to good advantage on their new, third CD 3ology with Ron Miles (Tapestry). The Colorado-based trio of Doug Carmichael, saxophones, Tim Carmichael, acoustic or electric bass and Jon Powers, drums, team up with cornetist Ron Miles on this one, and the combination leads to some adventurous results.

The music is loose and sometimes blazing jazz-rock/funk. This is too intelligently interactive to be pigeonholed into a kind of mainstream funk category. Tim Carmichael is a very out-front bassist that carries a groove more in common with Dave Holland than, say, Michael Henderson, and his chemistry with drummer Powers motors the session throughout to good places without having to stop for gas (to stretch the metaphor a bit).

Both Miles and Doug Carmichael play thoughtfully and well, both together and with the potent rhythm section. And they have something to say of their own, which is perhaps one of the points of such music!

I found myself more and more satisfied with what these cats are doing as I listened repeatedly. It's not just any old funk groove. It's Braniac music.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Correction, A New Swedish Piano Trio

Those who respond to the intimacy and potential power of the freely gliding jazz piano trio have something new to experience, Correction. Their recently released CD Two Nights in April (Ayler) hooks you into the band live at two different clubs in Sweden, playing forcefully convincing music with real panache.

Correction is Sebastian Bergstrom on piano, Joacim Nyberg on acoustic bass, and Emil Astrand-Melin on drums. And just because you may not have heard of them does not mean you should take them for granted.

The trio presents 12 relatively short improvisations, which is refreshing. They cover free post-Cecil Taylor explorations, hard swinging outbop, introspective free ballads, whirling dervish motor music, and things somewhere in between all of those options.

It's an accomplished, dynamic group and Mr. Bergstrom is a definite new voice to be heard. The music has the vitality of good live music and the subtlety of formidable musicianship. Everybody wins on this one: the trio, the audiences at the clubs and you, the home listener.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Schulhoff's Quartets, Beautifully Performed

If you are not familiar with the music of Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), you aren't alone. There are reasons for that. A Czech would-be national whose left-leaning politics ended him up in a Nazi concentration camp, where he died in 1942, he was one of those whose career and very life were essentially deconstructed by the tragic and evil circumstances of those horrible times.

But lucky for us all his music survives and seems to be undergoing a resurgence. A terrific place to start is with the release at hand, an excellent Naxos recording of his String Quartets. This is music with an Eastern European, Slavic, Semitic (?) sound to it. It's very lovely, very rhythmic in parts, very melodically interesting and very well put-together. Think of the quartets of Janacek and Bartok (and Dvorak before them), then forget all of that because Schulhoff doesn't channel their music in any direct way. He is simply working out of a musical mind-set that he in part shares with these three great composers. (Like Kafka and Musil, for a literary parallel). And in my humble opinion, Schulhoff's Quartets hold their own in such illustrious company.

But I might have missed the impact of this music if it wasn't for the exceptional performances of the Aviv Quartet. They are just fabulous. They have the Slavic-Semitic brio in full abundance, which is exactly what these quartets need. The Aviv Quartet play with great energy, passion, fire and rhythmic dash. Just beautiful!

To combine all of this and the peanuts Naxos asks you to pay to get a copy, well, I certainly would not hesitate to respectfully compel you to go and grab this one. In fact, here we are in May, but so far without hesitation this release is MY SLEEPER OF THE YEAR. Set your farmer's alarm clock for early and go out and get a copy before they all disappear! Seriously though, I am enchanted with this release. And I am quite surprised, because I had no idea that Schulhoff's music was this good.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Howard Blake: Modern Choral Music from England

I first came upon the music of Howard Blake via the soundtrack to the memorable animated film The Snowman. In particular the main theme as sung by boy treble with orchestra really captivated. It was a little like a cross between The Moody Blues's Days of Future Passed and middle-period Keith Jarrett. Hearing it still gives me goose bumps.

So when I saw this new Naxos release of Blake in a more "serious" concert choral zone, I jumped on the chance to hear and review it.

Blake seems like a natural when it comes to vocal-orchestral expression. Everything he writes in these two works (The Passions of Mary; Four Songs of the Nativity) seems to lay out in a kind of idiomatic near-perfection.

Howard Blake himself conducts the soloists, the London Voices, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for this recording, which seems definitive.

The music falls in a 20th Century tradition of such works by Walton, Vaughn Williams and others similar. That is to say, it uses extended tonal-traditional means to express lyrically the dramatic import of the narrative texts. The Passion of Mary follows a modern oratorio vein; For Songs of the Nativity uses the song form for some memorable Christmas fare.

Mr. Blake is a composer of talent. These are some beautiful and moving settings. If you are an Anglophile in matters classical, you will no doubt want this one. I will file it happily on my "modern English composers" shelf. That is, when I am not listening to and enjoying it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Alvin Curran's Remarkable Musical Collages

Alvin Curran is one of those composers-performers-improvisers that should be heard by anyone with designs on a complete understanding of modernity (whatever that will turn out to be when looking back 200 years from now).

He was the co-founder of Musica Elettronica Viva, one of the very first (and best) groups to combine live electronics and improvisation. They did things then that were so influential that improv groups are still trying to follow in their footsteps. He's since done a great deal of improv per se with some of the luminaries of the field.

It's his solo collage-like work that we look at today. The John Cage of "Fontana Mix" and "Variations IV" is a precursor, certainly. Sliced, diced and transformed snippets of sound, noise, musical excerpts of high. low, middle, folk, jazz, electronics, vernacular and what have you form the raw material. Where Cage had a kind of anti-structural, aleatoric stance, Curran perhaps is more sensitive to dramatic impact, the audience if you will, and there is more of a sense of structure and immersion in the distinctive sensuality of sound to what he does.

Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden was one of his earlier masterpieces in the collage idiom. If you haven't heard it, you should. Today, though, we're concerned with his work Toto Angelica in its realization released in 2005, I believe (i dischi di angelica). The CD release has this fascinating version of the piece, plus several shorter works. It is a continuous barrage of various vocal, instrumental and extra-instrumental sounds, and if you listen a number of times it really starts to make sense. Well, more than that. Mr. Curran is one of the most creative musical minds at work today.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Silvestre Revueltas, Mexican Composer of Brilliance

In the would-be pantheon of immortals, lined up one by one with those pretentious busts especially popular more than a few centuries ago, Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), the composer from Mexico, probably would not be an obvious choice for inclusion. His reputation was not especially strong in the LP years. The CD era, however, has seen a number of good releases of his music. Today we look at a new one.

Naxos has just released a three work collection of Revueltas's orchestral music, with conductor Gisele Ben-Dor ably leading the English Chamber Orchestra and the Santa Barbara Symphony. What's remarkable is that the main work, a ballet, "La Coronela (The Lady Colonel)" (1940), has never been recorded before. Why? I don't know. The score somehow disappeared. What matters is the music, which is filled with the vivid orchestral colors, heightened rhythms and Mexican folk strains with which Revueltas's music excels. It may not have the somewhat more strident modernisms of some of his more well-known works, but it is nevertheless a delight.

The other two works on this disc, "Itinerarios" and "Colorines" have a bit more of that.

Revueltas should not be taken for granted. His music still speaks to us if we listen. This collection, made doubly important by the addition of a significant unrecorded work, makes for essential listening.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Leandre, Houle and Strid Take It Out Live

There is so much good free improvisation going on in Europe that it's almost daunting to keep up with it. That's a good problem to have, as my old boss used to say.

Today we have another one of great interest. It's a recent live recording entitled Last Seen Headed (Ayler). The venue is Sons d'Hiver in France. The group is a fortuitous (as in fortunate) gathering of three interesting souls. Joelle Leandre plays the upright bass. She has gained a reputation for her bass-vocalisms and here we get less of the vocalisms and more of the bass. It turns out that perhaps I wasn't paying enough attention to her bass playing on previous recordings because she sounds great here. Whether plucking or bowing, she coaxes some fabulous phrases and sounds from her instrument, setting up a perfect context for the loose and wiry clarinets of Francois Houle. He sounds quite wonderful on this one as well and has to be one of the premier out clarinetists active today. There are moments where he invokes a kind of Evan Parker-on-clarinet in his cascades of repeating motifs, but then he goes right ahead and casts that aside to just wail. Finally, Raymond Strid mans the drums and gets a universe of sounds and attacks.

The trio creates a huge, blustery gigantism of free sounds at times; other times they are quieter. But either way they are into a zone that is a real pleasure to hear. Bravo!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Einojuhani Rautavaara, Orchestral Mystic

Composers who were musical mystics? Of course, we have Hildegard of Bingen, Mozart of "Don Giovanni" and the Masonic Music, Dukas, Scriabin, Ives ("The Unanswered Question," etc.), Messaien and today we have Einojuhani Rautavaara.

A new release of two of his orchestral pieces (Ondine) shows us a composer fully mature and stylistically singular. The Helsinki Philharmonic under Leif Segerstam give marvelously luminescent performances of Rautavaara's "Before the Icons" (1955/2005) and "A Tapestry of Life" (2007). The recording convinced me that Rautavaara is a contemporary original.

The music isn't exactly modern sounding, but it doesn't sound old either. There is a thickly rhapsodic quality to the music that does not ooze sentiment as much as map out a rather mysterious universe of affirming sound. It is quite beautiful, and not at all mawkish. Rautavaara orchestrates with thick impasto, vibrant blocks of color. It's like no other contemporary music, really. Grab this disk. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Creative Music Studio (CMS) Kicks Off Its Archive Series with A Fine First Volume

Woodstock's Creative Music Studios was a seminal force in new music education, founded by Karl Berger, Ornette Coleman and Ingrid Sertso in 1971. During its tenure in the '70s-'80s it held some excellent concerts, and apparently most if not all were recorded.

We are fortunate that the CMS Archive Project plans to release many of these in an ongoing series, the first volume of which is now available. It is an auspicious beginning.

The first volume concentrates on three ensembles of a contrasting sort. First up is a rare set by acclaimed Ornette bassist David Izenzon, who didn't do much (that I am aware of) as a leader in terms of recordings. He joins with Ms. Serto on vocals and Mr. Berger on piano in an interesting series of chamber pieces.

Next up is Oliver Lake with the CMS Orchestra in 1976 and 1979. The soloists are Mr. Lake, James Harvey on trombone, and Michael Gregory on guitar. It's excellent and quite rare and it's great to hear the soloists interact with the orchestra. One only wishes there was more of it. Perhaps there will be.

The final segment is a very lively set by kora master Foday Susa along with Hamid Drake on drums, John Marsh, e-bass, and Adam Rudolph percussion. This is the Mandingo Griot Society, a superb fusion of West African and contemporary American rhythmic and melodic concepts. The three cuts show Suso and company taking no prisoners. This is the band live and they are supercharged! It's an excellent set and supplements their somewhat less exuberant but no less excellent recordings.

The disk has much to like about it. I recommend it wholeheartedly. No doubt there are more such gems in store and I wish the project all success. For more information on the series and how you can become a subscriber go to

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big Band

Fred Ho always seems to be up to something interesting. He is a very talented jazz composer and he plays reeds in a very compelling way. So when he formed the Green Monster Big Band, populated it with stellar players like Bobby Zankel, Salim Washington, Stanton Davis, Taylor Ho Bynam, Earl MacIntyre (my apologies for leaving some out on this listing. . . not enough space), then fronts the big band with his baritone and his compositions and arrangements, well, you know something is a'bound to be happening. And with this debut album Celestial Green Monster (Mutable Music), there certainly is!

First off, there's a sense of humor. To start off with rousing versions of the "Spiderman Theme" and "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is a touch of brilliance but also of whimsy. And perhaps the most funny thing about it is that the music completely works! Kudos, by the way, to Mary Halverson and her guest guitar solo on the Iron Butterfly icon.

The CD goes on from there for some more "serious" music. We hear powerful renditions of three Fred Ho charts, one a long and ambitious "The Struggle for a New World Suite."

This is important modern big band music, superbly performed. I hope there are lots more releases from them. But even with this first, there is another feather in Fred Ho's very hip hat.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Contemporary Wind Band Music

From Naxos' Wind Band Classics Series comes a disk of three contemporary compositions, all written between 2006-2007. For some reason it took me a few more listenings than usual to find my way into the music. It's not that it isn't accessible, far from it. It demands some attention, which all good music does, and it may be that the first few times through I was distracted.

Be that as it may, the Frost Wind Ensemble of the University of Miami under Gary Green give it their best shot, and that's quite good. These pieces are not squarely in the avant realm, though the final work is a bit more edgy than the other two. The pieces are basically tonal and well-wrought. It's far from the marching-band-sitting-down-in-a-more-serious-way that some of the classic Hanson Mercury wind disks sounded like. It's more like orchestral music without the string section. And that certainly works with these pieces.

We've discussed Michael Daugherty's music earlier in this blog (see postings for October 23 & 26, 2009). His "Ladder to the Moon" on this release has charm. It's a lyrical, sometimes mysterious sort of tone poem in a neo-romantic vein. There's a concerted violin part, well played by Glenn Basham.

David Maslanka's "Concerto for Trombone and Wind Ensemble" features some expressive trombone realized by Tim Connor. The ghost of Wagner lurks somewhere behind the scenes, though he never quite gets on stage. There are moments, too, that seem like the music is about to break into the "Dies Irae" part of Berlioz's "Symphony Fantastique," but it never happens. The music is very good; not especially original, though.

Finally there is Christopher Rouse's "Wolf Rounds." This has some real spunk to it. There's a driving, almost rockish-jazzish quality to the opening lines, some menacing predatory sounds from the lower horns and timpani. An elaborate contrapuntal passage follows in what is the most modernist sounding of the three pieces. Towards the end there is an even more insistent contrapuntal tutti that includes some Latinesque rhythms from the percussion section. The finale gives you a great send off: exciting music that shows Christopher Rouse a composer that continues to deserve our full attention.

All in all Wolf Rounds (the CD) gives you three different takes on what the wind band can be today. At the Naxos low price, it is quite worth investigating.