Three Old Pros

McBrideNow that I’ve written that title, let me check. Christian McBride qualified as a young lion in the early 1990s, but he’s just turned forty. He’s got some old soul, though, perhaps the result of coming up with Bobby Watson’s group, playing with Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson, and Freddy Hubbard. He’s a master of control, a craftsman of the first order and an ideal mate for the his very talented pianist Christian Sands, himself a protege of old soul Billy Taylor. Rounding out the trio is an equally top-rank player, Ulysses Owens, Jr. The name of the CD, on Mack Avenue records, is Out Here, and it’s very satisfying, clean and varied with tight, focused performances. This is jazz composition and performance of the highest caliber. There’s a lot of strong material here, but McBride’s own “Ham Hocks and Cabbage” is especially fine. Oscar Peterson’s “Hallelujah Time” is wistful, pensive, and sweet, nicely played by Sands. Dr. Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker” is another of the CD’s best tracks, mostly because of the strolling, gently swinging motion of McBride’s bass, and its interplay with the Sands’ piano. Best of all: McBride bowing his way through the sentimental melody, “I Have Dreamed.” Selecting individual tracks is fun for me because everything here is so well-constructed and winning, but the funk of “Who’s Making Love” is lots of fun–with McBride doing a bit of showboating on a tune that can easily handle it. If you’re beginning to think about gifts for the holiday season, this is one in the category of “you can’t go wrong.”

So who’s older: pianist Keith Jarrett or vibraphonist Gary Burton? Both musicians started their career in the early 1960s, both have recorded dozens of albums, both are veterans of the jazz fusion era and managed to forge remarkable careers as collaborators.

2200 XJarrett’s work is immediately magical, glorious in its improvisation and sonic exploration. He’s been doing these albums for decades, and yet, every time I put a Jarrett CD on (or, for that matter, an LP), I’m immediately transported into the filagree of his imagination, sipping a drink at an after-hours jazz bar where the player is extraordinary and I just don’t want the evening to ever end. Recorded live at the KKL Luzern Concert Hall, the CD called Somewhere begins with the  mind-bending “Deep Space,” and here, it’s Jarrett’s show with just the right additional color and light provided by double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette; later in the track (the second part is Miles Davis’s “Solar,” their interplay moves the music into an even more interesting exploration, a testament to the extreme skill, experience and love of experimentation that these three musicians consistently offer. So that’s one track, again the first, and again, a favorite. (And I suppose I should mention that the sonic fidelity of these recordings is at such a high level, it would be difficult to imagine a disc sounding any better.) There are some favorite standards here (mine, anyway); it’s difficult for me not to be captivated by Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere;” and the less-often-heard “Stars Fell on Alabama” and the Jimmy van Heusen- Johnny Mercer tune, “I Thought About You.” Ooops–I’m listening to the wrong track–that’s really catchy, and less schticky than I remembered: “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”–well, a little schtick for me. Back to the dark night sky and mystery of “Stars Fell…” and my mind easily drifts to Perseids and stardust. What a lovely album.

GaryBurtonThe old guy in the crowd–Gary Burton is 70 to Keith Jarrett’s 68–opens with a Antonio Sanchez’s rocking drum, instantly establishing a more ambitious, brighter tone for the new Guided Tour, also from Mack Avenue. This is a quartet with Burton leading as one might do with a piano. Sanchez really drives this music. It’s a bigger sound than you would typically expect from a quartet. Burton is leading an exploration not entirely different from Jarrett, but more clearly articulated, more melodic, catchier. The difference is the way that Julian Lage is playing electric guitar, almost as if he’s playing in the style of Burton and his vibes on “Jane Fonda Called Again,” never passive or receding or relaxed, but instead, aggressive and punchy. Yes, they play pretty, too, working the pastoral mood on “Jackalope,”  and the Latin romance of “Helena” (especially nice guitar from Lage on this one), but it is so much more fun when these guys really go for it, with Burton playing fast and strong. Best example is probably the last track, written by drummer Sanchez, called “Monk Fish.” Scott Colley is the capable, but less showy, bassist; tough to get a word in edge-wise when the other players are clearly having so much fun. Far livelier than the other two CDs, Guided Tour is a terrific introduction to the Burton’s massive catalog.

What a great night of jazz listening. I haven’t enjoyed writing an article about anything in I don’t know how long. Thanks for the opportunity. Go–listen!

Donna and The Herd

Donna the BuffaloWestern New York turns out to be one of those creative hotbeds that most people don’t know much about. Ever since 1874, summers at Chautauqua have been filled, for a fortunate 100,000 visitors, with recreation, arts, lectures, and spiritual fulfillment. Buffalo, Rochester and Ithaca have long supported outsized music scenes. And then, there’s Donna the Buffalo.

Donna is one of those bands I’ve heard from time to time, but never really discovered. They come from the Finger Lakes region, and they remain the creative core of the annual Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in tiny Trumansburg, New York (this year, the festival begins on Thursday, July 18, and I’m hoping to be a part of it). Donna the Buffalo has been playing and recording together for over twenty years. It’s not too late to join the party.

Truth be told, before I started writing this article, I had never completely listened to a Donna the Buffalo album. For the past month or two, I’ve been listening to a half dozen DTB CDs over and over again. They’re terrific. I really like this band. They’re authentic, deeply rooted, and seem to be having a whole lot of fun. They seem to get the commercial thing–this music is neither experimental nor challenging–but they’ve managed to keep their integrity, to stay just to the side of the commercial craziness of the music business.

Tara-NevinsOn every album, there’s a great feel for Americana, healthy doses of country and bluegrass, an old-timey sensibility when it feels right, pure form rock n’ roll, bits of soul and funk. It all comes together with a superior sense of how it all ought to be arranged and presented. What do I like about this music? I guess I like the sound of the two lead vocalists: Tara Nevins with her country style on some tunes, and Jeb Puryear with a folk / rock / rockabilly / country style on others, but that’s just the start. There’s Tara’s fiddle keeping time on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and Jeb’s pedal steel on “Temporary Misery.” I like the way Kathy Ziegler sounds on backup vocals, a nice complement to Tara’s voice. I like the way the music dips into country music and rock, then goes funky.

The work is really tight–I love it when a band is really tight, really together, hitting every musical idea with perfect timing. Most, but not all, of the work is original, the vast majority written by the band’s lead singers, Nevins and Puryear. They tend to write catchy songs with memorable hooks, and after nearly 200 original compositions for this wonderful group, they know how to make it all work. They do touch base with respected influences: an especially handsome version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” pays homage to Ralph Stanley, for example.

Allow me recommend a few of the albums I’ve especially enjoyed.

PositiveFrictionSo far, I think my favorite is Positive Friction, released in 2000. This is album that I seem to play most often, probably because I enjoy Tara’s vocals, the chorus, and the arrangement, the catchy “No Place Like the Right Time” almost as much as I enjoy one of her other tunes, “Yonder.” The latter is both appealing as a catchy tune and as the kind of earnest social commentary that is so much of Donna the Buffalo’s creative approach. Nice lyrical treatment, too; here’s an example:

The waters led to the promised land

Seeds of  greed washed upon its shore

White footprints in the settling sand

Brought the ways of an ignorant man

Silverlined is a newer album, circa 2008, is a more mature work, more subtle, more varied in its instrumentation and soundscape. Puryear’s “Meant to Be,” for example, reminds me of Emmylou Harris’ work on Red Dirt Girl. “I Don’t Need a Riddle” combines Nevins’ more mature voice with a Cajun accordion and an interesting, vaguely funky rhythm track. The songs roll on, but they seem to be more contemporary, more artful, arranged less to please an audience ready to dance than a single listener enjoying a handsome combination of an interesting arrangement, a plaintive voice, and thoughtful lyrics; “Beauty Within” is a good example with Nevins on lead vocals.

DIGIPAK-4PANEL 1TRAY [Converted]A band that counts its time together in decades ought to encourage some solo work, and that’s precisely the approach here. Right now, I’m enjoying Wood and Stone, a 2011 solo album by Tara Nevins. Here, there’s a healthy amount of straight-ahead country (perhaps bluegrass / old-time / country is a more accurate description), as in “The Wrong Side” with some lovely instrumental breaks. Nice version of “Stars Fell on Alabama,” too. It’s all easy, natural, and a wonderful side journey just close enough to her work with Donna to keep fans happy (I’ll include myself here).

After I wrote all of this, I figured I would check on what others have written about Donna the Buffalo. On Amazon, Alanna Nash wrote this:

Donna the Buffalo–hard to categorize, but easy to love–are meant to be heard live. The six-member group thrives on jams and grooves, blending, bending, and veering from Appalachian country to Cajun, reggae, zydeco, folk, and roots rock often in the same song (check out the nearly 13-minute “Conscious Evolution”).

Intrigued, I kept reading:

Frequently compared to the Grateful Dead, DTB evoke Jerry Garcia and pals, both musically and with their rabid, nomadic fan base (the Herd). But in mixing tribal celebration with spiritual, social, and political issues, the band, which travels the country in a 1960 tour bus, recalls so many other hippie-era ensembles.

Not so sure I agree. DTB reminds me of at least a dozen other bands, but the Dead wouldn’t be high on that list. This doesn’t feel like a California band, not to me, anyway. Instead, I’m hearing a distinctly Appalachian vibe here, probably by way of Nashville, with a mix of lots of other styles I associate with Mississippi, Virginia, and other places on this side of the country.

LiveFromTheAmericanBallroomThen again… there’s this live album from 2001, probably a better representation of the band than the individual CDs. It’s a compilation of tour recordings called Live from the American Ballroom. The sixties are alive and well on “Conscious Evolution,” a kind of tribal chant by way of rock n’ roll, world music, Cajun, funk, lots of styles bubbling up to the surface, then fading into the next musical idea. In fact, the whole album is filled with long songs and the kinds of improvisation that filled so many live albums in the 1970s. I think my favorite is “Standing Room Only,” kind of Cajun, kind of a chant, great dance song for a Saturday night.

Those days are gone (but available online and from any well-stocked vinyl-oriented record store), but Donna the Buffalo keeps on going. A few months ago, I wasn’t sure what these guys were all about. Now, I like them enough to recommend them to you. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all meet up in the Finger Lakes in July.

Enjoy.

P.S. Lots of Donna the Buffalo video on You Tube.

Before I Shelve These CDs…

It’s winter, so I’ve spent more time indoors than out. And that means weekend afternoons listening to lots of fine music. Before these CDs get lost on the shelves, allow me to share some recommendations:

Fahey Takoma

(Yes, I know this is vinyl, not a CD. Please read on…)

John Fahey was an acoustic guitar player with a nearly mythical story. He lived from 1939 until 2001. Beginning in the mid-1960s and until the early 1970s, Fahey recorded a remarkable series of acoustic guitar albums, each firmly rooted in the 1920s acoustic blues of the south, and yet, in their own way, contemporary and wholly original. For some time, these records were hard to find, but nowadays, there isn’t much music that’s hard to find. And in Fahey’s case, there is now a series of wonderful CDs available at popular prices. Two of my favorites are The Legend of Blind Joe Death and America. In time, I will make it my business to listen to most or all of his work. And, along the way, I intend to track down a film produced about Fahey in 2010. It’s called In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, and it’s the source of the image at the top of this paragraph. Click on the picture and you’ll see the trailer.

Karl Jenkins. Be sure to search on his image on the web. This is a very conservative portrait of a very colorful guy.

Karl Jenkins. Be sure to search on his image on the web. This is a very conservative portrait of a very colorful guy.

When I was visiting the UK this past year, I stopped by Blackwell’s Music in Oxford and requested listening recommendations. I left the store with several Oxford choral CDs, and with a three-CD box by composer Karl Jenkins entitled The Platinum Collection. According to his website, he is “the most performed living composer in the world.” Who knew? I missed him completely, and again, I’m only now getting up to date. Jenkins came up as a jazz guy, playing at the famous Ronnie Scott’s club in London, then forming the popular jazz group Nucleus with Ian Carr, and then, as part of one of my then-favorite British progressive bands, Soft Machine. After a period of writing music for commercials, he composed Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary which is included in my box set. Like the other two discs, Adiemus combines a contemporary approach to choral music, a wide range of instruments (classical, jazz, rock, whatever works best), and a wonderful range of energy from contemplative to soaring. At first, I’ll admit that I listened to Jenkins as background music (bad idea). This is music that requires full-throttle listening, preferably on a top-notch sound system with the widest possible dynamic range, accuracy, and superior reproduction of vocal parts. Jenkins can be a crowd-pleaser in the sense of, say, music composed for the Olympics, but I found more nourishment when I listened carefully, and allowed myself the time to pay attention to these works in their complete form.

I’m equally intrigued by the Kronos Quartet, a forward-thinking classical ensemble I’ve been following for decades. I missed out on their 2009 2test-600x0release, Floodplain, and now that I’ve got a copy, I’ve been playing it a lot. It’s an album of music from various nations and cultures located in and near the Middle East, mostly instrumentals, some traditional, played with the deep knowledge that this music was composed in the part of the world where “human civilization was born and first flourished.” There is respect and beauty. Respect because this is not Middle Eastern music. Instead, there is “Lullaby,” which is Black Iranian but affected by other cultures, and there is “Wa Habini” a Christian devotional song sung on Good Friday, part of the sacred tradition of Lebanon. “Tew semagn hagere” (Listen to Me, My Fellow Countrymen) comes from Ethiopia, and it is played on instruments constructed for Kronos by their designer, Walter Kitundu, who hails from Tanzania. The album opens with a hit song, from the 1930s, from Egypt: “Ya Habibi Ta’ala.” In fact, many of the songs were hits long ago. This is music you’ll want to buy on CD: the liner notes add texture and important background to the listening experience.

Garth KnoxGarth Knox’s 2012 release, Saltarello, was released by ECM New Series in 2012, and it, too, has become a favorite. Knox performs on viola, viola d’amore, and fiddle. As he performs an interesting selection of old and very new music, he does so with the attentive accompaniment of Agnes Vesterman on cello and Sylvain Lemetre on percussion. The repetoire here begins with the early British composer Henry Purcell (“Music for a While”) and continues on the old track with Hildegarde von Bingen, and John Dowland. I like the idea that this music is contrasted with work by, for example, the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and that Knox manages to pull it all together as a cohesive whole. The Saariaho piece is challenging, extreme in its special effects. To be honest, I had to check the unfamiliar name–Guillaume de Machaut–to determine whether he was an old composer or a new one (he lived in the 1300s, and was equally famous as a poet whom Geoffrey Chaucer apparently admired).

300px-Machaut_1

Well, I found this tapestry on the Wikipedia site for Machaut. Clearly, he is not a contemporary composer.

Andy Sheppard

Andy Sheppard (click on the link for a bunch of neat pictures of Sheppard at play.)

Also on ECM, and also from 2012, Trio Libero is an album that I’ve enjoyed time and again. It’s one of those albums with a distinctive series of opening notes that sounds wonderfully familiar, and causes me to follow the lead line all the way through the first song (“Libertino”). Here, I’m listening to a terrific saxophone player named Andy Sheppard (he also plays soprano sax). Sheppard’s solo leads to a long, comfortable bass solo by Michel Benita (who is a major presence throughout, moreso than one typically finds on albums by a sax trio). As I said, I’ve listened to this album quite a few times, and now that I’m listening while writing about it, there’s a smile on my face. It’s just really good jazz. It’s quite varied. There’s a nice tender rendition of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” on the third track, a Weather Report-like texture entitled “Space Walk, Part 1.” And, the more I listen, the more I come to realize how much I enjoy listening to a well-played soprano sax. This is one of those albums where everything comes together beautifully, and I encourage you to be among the (inevitable) few who come to enjoy it as much as I do.

Okay, everything on this list now gets placed on the shelves, making room for the new, or, at least, for music that’s new to me.

Best in Class

I guess I ought to begin with the obvious question: what is common thread that connects Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Adele, and Beyoncé?

The answer is Columbia Records. Founded in 1888, it’s probably the oldest record label. Along with sister labels Epic, Okeh, and a few others–set the standard for the U.S. recording industry for half of the 20th century. This story, now in book form by Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz, is, well, epic. The book is called 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story (the term “360 Sound” refers to a tagline associated with Columbia’s stereo LPs).

220px-BertWilliamsPhotoPortraitWithCigarette

“(I Ain’t Got) Nobody” was one of the many songs that made Bert Williams famous. He was among the first non-white stars in the United States.

After some novelty acts, Columbia establishes a firm footing with vaudeville superstar Al Jolson; the great singer and comedian who later starred in the Ziegfield Follies, Bert Williams, and one of the fathers of country music, Emmett Miller. A short time later, John Philip Sousa joined the label (at the time, his full band could not be recorded due to early microphones, so the sound was thinner than it was in live performances). Add W.C. Handy, and an equally impressive range of classical performers.

Columbia became a major force in “race records,” recognizing, early on, White consumer interest in Black performers. From this era came Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and artists that those familiar with the genres continue to buy: Blind Willie Johnson, for example. There was country (and western) music, too: Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff. Next came jazz pianist Art Tatum, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie. And Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby. And gospel music: The Golden Gate Quartet, Mahalia Jackson. And that’s all before the organization really found its way.

(As I said, this is an astonishing story. It’s wave after wave of the superb artists in every genre, all working, at one time or another, for the same label, or cluster of labels.)

So here comes the 1950s with Tony Bennett, Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Glenn Gould, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney… and almost no rock n’ roll. Mitch Miller–a company executive and in his own right, a very popular recording artist as a leader of a singing group–was against the whole idea. Still, they were strong in every other genre–classical in particular, and jazz. It was here that Miles Davis recorded most of his best work, with Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, and so many others. Unfortunately, although quite classy, there wasn’t much profit in classical, jazz or (most) Broadway recordings. Country was better: Flatt and Scruggs, Lefty Frizell, The Stanley Brothers, and eventually, Johnny Cash.

Along the way, there’s some tasty back-and-forth between Columbia and its long-time arch-rival (in just about every musical category), RCA Victor (which, in its golden age, was owned by RCA, which owned NBC to Columbia’s CBS). The two companies do their best to mess with the other, stealing artists, introducing competing record formats (the LP came from Columbia and the 45 came from RCA).

For a while longer, they stick with easy choices, and steer clear of the growing revolution: they sign Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis (who sells an insane number of records), and Robert Goulet.

Columbia RecordsAnd then, it happens. They sign Bob Dylan. Everything begins to change. Simon & Garfunkel come next. Suddenly, the cool jazz label, the reliable country label, the powerhouse classical label, becomes the unbelievably great rock label. The Byrds are covering Dylan songs and selling lots of Byrds and Dylan records. Donovan is signed to Epic, and debuts with a hit (“Sunshine Superman”). There’s a new executive in charge (much of the whole story is told through the eras of individual executives). His name is Clive Davis, and now, Columbia is the place to hear Janis Joplin and Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Leonard Cohen, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Chicago. They sign Earth Wind and Fire; Johnny Cash records an album at Folsom Prison; Monk and Miles are selling lots of jazz, with Miles into fusion, and appealing to rock audiences. And then, by the mid-1970s, there’s another wave of newcomers: Billy Joel, Aerosmith, and Bruce Springsteen. A great story is becoming better and better.

And then, another wave, this time bringing Willie Nelson to the company and making him a star. The jazz story continues to heat up with Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, and a newcomer from the young lions of jazz, Wynton Marsalis. On the classical side, Yo-Yo Ma is becoming a star.

All of this is one company, basically one record label. Of course, the story continues through hip-hop, Ricky Martin, an aging Bob Dylan, Michael Bolton and Lauryn Hill, Destiny’s Child and John Mayer. Chris Botti and Joshua Bell.

Yes, they’ve been bought and sold, multiple times (now owned by Sony). For me, the best part of the journey (oh yes, Journey was one of theirs, too), the best part of this coffee table book, is the era that picks up in the early 1950s and winds down about twenty years later. That’s when CBS was a very special place, in part because Columbia was just about the coolest record label around. It’s a good story, fun because of the memories, remarkable because of the achievement. And, I think, the best way to experience the era is on the vinyl records that Columbia invented, most of them now available, used, for about $5 at just about any good used record store.

columbia labels

So, I’ve been thinking about other labels with equally rich histories. The Warner Music Group includes Atlantic, Elektra, Nonesuch, and Warner Bros. Records. Historically, Atlantic’s strengths have been R&B and rock; Elektra’s have been folk and rock; Nonesuch has evolved into something like a (smaller) modern day Columbia Records with interesting artists, Broadway, classical, and international; Warner Bros. is, more or less, a popular music label. The crazy history of the labels that became Sony Music now encompasses Columbia’s long-time competitor RCA (Victor) as well as the Columbia labels; in just about every category, from Broadway to classical to country, RCA and Columbia were head-to-head, and although I want to write that Columbia did it just that much better on the rock and pop side, I’m reminded of the Jefferson Airplane (less so, the Starship), John Denver and others from the heyday (none were Dylan or Miles Davis–so maybe Columbia did do it better). In classical music, the labels now assembled under the current Decca Label Group, now part of Universal, include London/Decca and Deutsche Grammophon, but neither attempted the breadth of genres associated with Columbia. Similarly, the likes of Verve, A&M, and other Universal labels, lacked the grand ambition (and, probably, the monies available from CBS). EMI’s story is more complicated, and although its U.S. division, Capitol Records, released many pop and rock records, and some Broadway, it never established the breadth of material available from Columbia.

So, in terms of wide-ranging, deep-repetoire, and long history, it’s Columbia Records and its best competitor, RCA (Victor), but I urge you to have a look at all that Nonesuch has done, too.

Superior Gift: Piano CDs by Corea, Jarrett and Lubimov

Yeah, it took me a while to understand what I was listening to, or two, and why I kept playing a pair of paired discs time and again. (Okay, sorry, I will slow down.)

For much of this past month, I have been listening to passionate, impressionistic performances by several extraordinary piano players (plus one more).

This sequence of listening began when I attended a wonderful performance by Chick Corea and his friend and frequent collaborator, Gary Burton. They’ve been on tour with the Harlem String Quartet, presenting a remarkably consistent, and now quite differentiated, version of late 20th and early 21st century jazz. Corea is a tireless composer, a man filled with ideas, a creative person never satisfied with one course of action. Like Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck (also a Corea collaborator), and others who have been performing for several decades, Corea has one career with Burton, another as part of a jazz trio (with Christian McBridge and Brian Blade), and still another with Bobby McFerrin. The Burton performance was stunning, perfect in its way, endlessly interesting, and sufficiently inspiring to make me want to see Corea in his other formats.

Which leads (at long last!) to the focus of this particular blog post, whose initial conception did not include Corea at all. Instead, it was to focus on Keith Jarrett, whose career has been somewhat more conventional in that he plays fabulous solo concerts–the newest being Rio, which was recorded in Rio de Janeiro–and as part of a trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on percussion. There are probably two dozen Jarrett solo recordings, and every one is similar, but in its way, exhilarating, original, compelling, and consistently inventive. This is probably one of the best of the lot, but there are so many fine examples, it’s difficult to choose (and you certainly won’t go wrong if you purchase any of them). Rather than recommending one or two, I think it’s wiser for me to point you to a page that lists all of them on the wonderful All Music Guide site.

Jarrett and Corea worked together in Miles Davis’s band in 1970–a very long time ago in musical terms. It’s fascinating to listen to those nearly-a-half-century-old recordings, those initial flights into a fresher, freer, easier, less structured form of jazz and to consider the stops along the way, a way that has been so elaborately documented on some many recordings (for the most part, excellent recordings, with only the occasional excursion into dubious territory).

Now I find myself comparing Jarrett’s RIO with something much older, but very much from the same spring. Here, the composer is Claude Debussy. The pianist is Alexei Lubimov, sometimes playing his Bechstein beside another Alexei, in this case, Alexei Zuev, on his Steinway piano. Perhaps it’s the elegance, the presentation, the combination of control and fireworks, the seriousness… or the extraordinary skill that compels me to consider Debussy and Jarrett’s recordings as ideal companions for an extended listening session on a gloriously rainy or snowy afternoon. The latter is not new music–it predates Jarrett by more than a century–but the sense of freedom, the phrasing, the flights of fantasy and ecsstacy on, for example, “La puerta del vino,” sounds more like 21st century jazz to my ears than it sounds like traditional classical music.

At a certain point, writing about music really is like dancing about architecture, so I’ll stop here and not embarrass myself with a flurry of comments about Debussy’s individual preludes and how nicely they’re carried off by Lubimov on Preludes.

As the music begins to fade, and friends are pulling up to the house after a long drive (they’ll be hungry), allow me to simply recommend a pair of very good piano recordings, each a pair in itself (each is a 2-CD set), perhaps the ideal gift for just about anybody willing to take the time to really listen. Both packages are excellent.

Let me end with a note to myself: I need to learn a lot more about Alexei Lubimov, and spend time listening to his past work. He’s a new name for me, and after of month of listening to him play the piano, I am beginning to understand the many internet claims… he may be one of our contemporary keyboard musicians. I suspect Lubimov deserves a proper article of his own. Getting to work right now…

My 500-Year-Old CD

Day by day, there’s not much that we encounter from the year 1611. Shakespeare was busy writing The Tempest. Henry Hudson died. Marco de Dominis published a scientific explanation of rainbows. A year later, tobacco was first planted in Virginia, and the Dutch started using Manhattan Island as a trading center.

In 1611, Carlo Gesualdo wrote some of the most uplifting music for voices in the history of the medium, a book of madrigals. This creative work did not come easily. Count Gesualdo of Venoso’s story involves his instigation of the gang murder of his own wildly unfaithful wife (he plunged the sword into her body, and not just once, shouting, repeatedly, “she’s not dead yet!”), then moves through remarkable bouts with depression and abuse, including the dozen men to beat him daily (I’ll spare you details, but you can find them here and in lots of places on the internet). As crazy stories of composers lives go, he’s the hands-down winner. His story is deeply disturbing. His music is miraculous. Witness his captivating Tenebrae, one of the classic items from the formidable ECM catalog, first released in 1991, and consistently astonishing, a record I return to on a regular basis, a record that I recommend with little hesitation to any serious listener. And now, for 2012, witness the same Hilliard Ensemble treating five hundred year old music as if it was contemporary art. The newer disc is called Quinto Libre di Madrigali, and it is fascinating. The title and notes explain: this is the fifth of six books of madrigals, this one created late in the composer’s life. From the liner notes: “The whole collection constitutes a gallery of dramatically lit portraits of human emotions with a heavy emphasis on the extremes of joy and despair.”

There are six voices: a soprano, a pair of countertenors, a pair of tenors, and a baritone. (Soprano Monika Mauch and second countertenor David Gould frequently sing with the four-man Hilliard Ensemble; on this recording, Mauch is stunning.) All six singers sound like angels, and if you close your eyes, it’s easy to imagine these voices climbing up a heavenly spire in search of their lord. They sing in unison, they sing in pairs, they sing in harmony, they sing alone. They climb. They intertwine. They rest and they bounce. They exchange leads almost as if they contain the souls of jazz musicians to come. In musical terms, Gesualdo’s music is often described as “deeply chromatic”–a madman coloring with the brightest possible pigments and an extraordinary level of precision, probably based upon some sort of serious mental illness that caused his creative light to burn just a little too brightly. Two years after he composed these madrigals, he was dead.

Gesualdo’s work is not background music. It is music that captures the imagination, and elevates the spirit in a primal, deeply human way. There are no musical instruments, only voices, and open space.

This is not the best choice of music to play through computer speakers. ECM sets high standards for each of its recording projects, and this one, in particular, demonstrates the care that must be taken in order to record a wide range of vocal performances. The precision, the soaring thrusts, the extraordinary quiet passages, the contemplative quality of the whole, all of this has been meticulously prepared for your enjoyment. Listening through inferior equipment is like trying to contemplate the Mona Lisa by looking at a postage stamp. Best to listen through quality headphones, or on a good stereo system. The CD sounds a whole lot better than a computer file with reduced clarity and range. Trust me on this one: buy the CD, and allow yourself the time and space to listen with your whole being.

The Hilliard Ensemble, plus two additional vocalists. If you’re intrigued, be sure to explore the ensemble’s work with composer Arvo Pärt as well.

Learning from Woody

On July 12, 2012, Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old. This poster commemorates a life well-lived, and a voice that has never rested. You can support the Woody Guthrie Foundation if you buy this poster. You can learn a lot from Woody. I did, as explained below.

“Hey kids, want to sing a song? Some of you might know this song, but the words can be hard to remember. Here’s a sheet with the lyrics…”

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

Singing “This Land Is Your Land” as a group exercise begins an exploration of surprising dimensions. Note how broad, deep and wide Woody Guthrie’s river of highway manages to travel.

Just as most people’s knowledge of Martin Luther King begins and ends with an “I Have a Dream” speech and a murder in Memphis, most people’s knowledge of Woody Guthrie begins and ends with one popular song. Turns out, there was a lot more to Woody, and, a lot more to this particular song. Here’s a lyric that you might not have heard Woody sing:

 There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property.

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;

That side was made for you and me.

Woody sang this song (and many of his songs) with different verses (see note 1 below). Among folk singers, and storytellers, this remains common practice (also, among jazz musicians, but rarely among the commercial performers whose recordings are usually the definitive versions of their songs). In fact, Woody’s own life story can be difficult to follow because he often recalled his own life as a storyteller might– with different details depending upon his audience.

As I think about Woody Guthrie, and about how people learn, I envision a different kind of education than most people find at school, an education based upon individual learning and ideas that connect with one another, and with the heart and soul. I think that’s a better way to learn, or, at least, i think that’s the way I learn.

Turns out, Woody’s full name was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, and he was named for a presidential candidate, then president of Princeton University. By age 14, Woody was living pretty much on his own in his hometown, Okemah, Oklahoma; his mother had been institutionalized with the Huntington’s Disease that would later take her life, and his father was living in Texas (see note 2 below). Woody becomes a street musician, then leaves for promise of California, one more Okie whose life was shaped by the Dust Bowl tragedy. In Los Angeles, he sang hillbilly music on the radio as part of a duo, but spent lots of his spare time thinking about, and writing about, working class people who could not find work. Woody wrote protest songs, and, for a few months, wrote for a Communist newspaper (though he was never a member of the Party).

Learning about Woody in the 1930s leads the interested student (me, among them) into the plight of real people during the Depression; ways in which creative people somehow earn a living; why creative people sometimes find traditional work difficult to do; the importance of unions for the working man; the story of the Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia River; socialism and communal living; the blacklists of the early 1950s; life in a singing group; writing an autobiography; the usefulness of cartooning (Woody drew cartoons); the work of the Library of Congress in preserving the nation’s heritage; the slow demise of Coney Island and Brooklyn in the 1940s; deportation of immigrants; the emergence of Bob Dylan and 1960s folk singers in Greenwich Village; the life of Leadbelly, an ex-convict (doing time for murder) who sang his way out of lifetime in prison to become a popular folksinger (he was Woody’s friend; “Goodnight Irene” was one of his songs); Sacco & Vanzetti and questions regarding fair trials; the concept of an artist’s legacy; a son carrying on his father’s work and then finding his own way as an artist and a man; a granddaughter finding her way through the music industry, too.

Clearly, Woody’s music and Woody’s story appeals to me. In writing these two pages, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m certain that I will follow up. That’s how I learn. I wonder whether most people learn this way. I suspect they do.

Notes:

1 – An interesting question for aspiring musicians: when is a song “finished?” Is a song a continuing work of art that should be malleable, or is it final at the time it is recorded. This conversation quickly leads to another about copyrights and how they work: which version of the song would be protected by copyright, and why?

2 – Later, Woody Guthrie would die from the same hereditary disease. This leads the student to a study of genetics, family trees and genealogy, and diseases of the nervous system. George Huntington’s 1872 discovery of the disease is an interesting story about how diseases are identified, and how medical research has evolved. Back further, one theory of the “witches” burned in 1672 in Salem, Massachusetts connects the women involved with symptoms associated with Huntington’s disease. Playwright Arthur Miller told this Salem story differently when he wrote his play, The Crucible, to get people to think more critically about anti-Communist campaign waged by the dubious Senator Joseph McCarthy.

3 – Further encouragement: I’m not the first to see the value of Woody Guthrie’s life and art as a platform for further learning in a many related areas of knowledge. Guthrie curriculum materials can be found here.

“Absolutely, extraordinarily bad”

That’s how innerfidelity.com editor-in-chief Tyll Hertsens described the sound quality of  Beats by Dr. Dre headphones on the front page of this morning’s NY Times Business section (link below).

Yeah, they’re very heavy on the bass. And they’re best for music where bass drives the musical experience. And sometimes, if you listen loud, there’s distortion. On the other hand, Beats are fashion statement, and people wear them not only to listen, but to be seen listening.

Headphones as pictured (from the company website): $349. That’s a lot of money for a pair of headphones. Industry observers are impressed by the team of Dr. Dre and Monster Cable because they’ve opened a new market where price sensitivity matters less than lifestyle choices.

By comparison, a pair of AKG K240 Professional Studio Headphones cost $199.

If you have a pair of Beats, or manage to try a pair in a store, share your impressions.

http://beatsbydre.com/Default.aspx

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/business/beats-headphones-expand-dr-dres-business-world.html?partner=yahoofinance

http://www.innerfidelity.com/

Maria Bethânia – As Cancões Que Você Fez Pra Mim

Maria Bethânia is the sister of top Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso. Born in 1946 in the interior region of Bahia, Brazil’s northeastern state, she’d planned to become an actress. In 1963, Bethânia and her brother moved to the nearby state capital city of Salvador, where she impressed audiences singing in a musical (written by her brother). Bethânia has been a professional singer ever since. While in Salvador, she and her brother became friendly with Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa, and the four led a significant cultural movement called Tropicálismo that changed Brazilian music and art. It was so radical that Veloso and Gil were exiled, but Bethânia and Costa kept the movement alive in Brazil. Bethânia is a dramatic singer whose versatility is matched by her desire to experiment with a wide variety of songs and genres, and a willingness to introduce works by up-and-coming songwriters.

This 1993 album was recorded twice. One version was recorded with Portugese lyrics (as above). The other, called Las Canciones Que Hiciste Para Mi (Philips 518-787), is in Spanish. Both are majestic. Each is a collection of 11 songs written by Roberto and Erasmo Carlos and sung with a small combo backed by an enormous string section (magnificently arranged by Graham Preskett). Bethânia’s powerful, dramatic interpretations are affecting on both the Portuguese and Spanish versions, but her passion breathes life into the Portuguese versions of “Fera Ferida,” “Palavras,” and “Eu Preciso de Você.” Analog recording, but sounds better than most digital discs.

Philips 518-214

Available only as an import, but worth the price: http://www.amazon.com/Cancoes-Que-Voce-Fez-Pra/dp/B0000015TF

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