Hristo Vitchev & Liubomir Krastev: Rhodopa

Rhodopa

Bulgaria-born, Bay Area-based guitarist Hristo Vitchev, having firmly established himself as a gentle giant in the contemporary jazz scene, seems always willing and able to reinvent himself while holding true to the integrity of his artistry. For Rhodopa, one of a prolific string of new releases, he joins clarinetist Liubomir Krastev in a unique duo setting of original tunes and Eastern European folk songs. The result is unquestionably Vritchev’s finest project to date. Some of his most perennial compositions, including “Silent Prayer” and “Blues for Clever Peter,” encroach upon the album’s roots-oriented landscape like sprigs of autumn foliage ready to let go of their branches. The latter tune especially shows the potential of this duo to turn a skeleton into a fully-fleshed body, rendering as it does a fluttering guitar ostinato as launching pad for Krastev, whose clarinet darts, soars, and dives without a trace of inhibition. The dynamic contrasts of “Devoiko Mari Hubava” (Beautiful Young Lady) likewise delineate fundament and firmament with clarity of vision. Vitchev’s steel-stringed harmonics stretch a canvas for Krastev’s fluid brushstrokes, bringing the music to new levels with the addition of a second (classical) guitar.

This is the first of the album’s largely Bulgarian songbook, in which the upbeat virtuosity of “Polegnala e Todora” (Todora Took a Nap) fits snugly between the lyrical pages of “Lale Li Si, Zyumbiul Li Si” (Are You a Tulip, Are You a Hyacinth) and “Hubava Si Moia Goro” (You Are My Beautiful Forest), the last two brimming with heart and poise.

Track lengths on Rhodopa range from one to ten and a half minutes, shortest in the two “Improvisations” by which the musicians dig deepest to the layers of tradition that inform their souls. There is, then, something about this music that speaks heart to heart. It is ancient yet also blossoms with new interpretive subtleties, welcoming us to dance and reflect by turns, knowing that spring is never far away, regardless of the season outside your window.

Joe DeRose and Amici: Peace Streets

Peace Streets

Following their 2010 debut, Sounds for the Soul, San Jose-based drummer Joe DeRose and his “amici” (friends) break out with their follow-up, Peace Streets. Fronted by guitarist Hristo Vitchev, saxophonist Dan Zinn, keyboardist Murray Low, and bassist Dan Robbins, DeRose presents an album of intelligence and nostalgia. Opener “New Frontiers,” in point of fact, establishes such an unmistakable Pat Metheny vibe that you may just want to start the car now so that you’re ready to hit the road once you press PLAY. Between Vitchev’s gentle voicings and Low’s synth textures, the music’s punctuations surround us with sunlight.

It’s a comfortable vantage point from which to survey the journey to come. With such memorable stops as the 70s-infused “Native Son” and the sweeping Latin groove of “The Spirit of the Room,” and from there the melodic stretches of highway laid by the funky “Smiles for Miles” and the gorgeously emphatic “In a Moment’s Time” (now entering the 80s), there’s much to admire along the way. Through all of it, DeRose’s bandmates make easy work of the changes. Vitchev emotes with virtuosic, snaking starlight, his constellations alive with an unwavering foreword gaze. Zinn commands with his remarkable tonal chops, knowing just when to lay back and when to turn up the heat. Low’s presence is as selective as it is integral. Like Vitchev, he is just as comfortable soloing as he is holding the front line. Robbins, for his part, digs deep, unearthing anchor after anchor. DeRose, too, continually switches places, flitting from side to side with finesse.

Zinn in particular proves himself a most chameleonic player. Whether donning his Lenny Pickett hat in the otherwise laid-back “So It Is!” or morphing into the Jan Garbarek-like register of “In a Single Breath,” he is careful to acclimate himself to the mood at hand. This full set of originals, all from DeRose and Vitchev, lends itself beautifully to this collective palette. Some of the most effective interactions, however, occur between Zinn and Vitchev, sparring playfully as they do in “Native Reprise.” Even the soft lighting of “After the Storm” does nothing to obscure their simpatico dialogues, which reach their most uninhibited levels on the concluding title track.

To be continued, I hope.

Ken Husbands Trio: Keepin’ It Going

Ken Husbands Trio

As a label mate of jazz guitarist Hristo Vitchev, Ken Husbands is in fine company. With bassist Aaron Germain and drummer Otto Huber, even finer. As the Ken Husbands Trio, they make sculptures of their music, smooth and chiseled to lifelike appearance. For its sophomore outing, the trio navigates a set of six originals, crisply recorded and played.

With a background in funk and a personal interest in fusion, Husbands harnesses many influences under one umbrella, but articulates them with an economy that is altogether refreshing. “East Coast Groupings” points to the guitarist’s Boston roots, dipping early into a pool of groove. There is here, as throughout the album, a feeling of the open road. Germain’s warped electric bass foils Huber’s pristine timekeeping with a hint of grunge. The drummer’s rhythmic slights of hand further dress the emerging groove of “Lucky Seven” in cathartic clothing. Here the trio works synergistically, Husbands working overtime to maintain a smooth exterior, stoking the flames by means of his stream-of-consciousness style. The title track proceeds along Huber’s skipping trail, while Germain switches to more direct amplification, augmented by a spacy echo effect. Husbands provides a circling backdrop for Germain’s initial forays before taking over the foreground with a non-invasive lyricism.

“Goodbye Eddie,” however, gives us the album’s biggest revelation in German’s less mitigated playing. The only non-Husbands original of the set (this one by way of the bassist’s pen), it evokes a slicker, more classic club vibe. Germain’s fast fingers give virtuosity a melodic sheen in this standout track. “Almost Eleven” returns us to the groove-oriented approach with which the album began and shows the trio at its tightest yet also its most liberated. Even amid all the hot action from the rhythm section here, Husbands manages to light a few fires of his own. Last is “But I Don’t,” another smooth and carefully interlocking ride. Husbands and Germain never cease to reinvent their own wheels along the way, Huber keeping toeing the line and throwing in a hard-edged solo for good measure.

At a mere 39 minutes, Keepin’ It Going might feel like a modest album were it not for the overt invitation of its playing. The band’s hallmark is a genuine desire to keep the listener engaged. This music is packed with ideas and expresses those ideas openly. This isn’t jazz that hits you over the head, but that takes you by the hand and shows you just how wide the world can be.

Możdżer/Danielsson/Fresco: The Time

The Time

Polish pianist and composer Leszek Możdżer, best known for his solo re-imaginings of Chopin (released 1994 on Polonia Records), has since 2005 carved into the soil of jazz a significant river in trio with bassist Lars Danielsson and percussionist Zohar Fresco. The Time represents the group’s first studio outing, and the results are nothing short of enchanting. With a blend of lyricism and space that should appeal to fans of ECM’s many European traversals, Możdżer and Company put their all into every tune.

Among those tunes, Danielsson’s provide the skeleton. “Asta” opens the disc in David Darling-like reverie, Fresco’s wordless vocals floating in the spirit of Per Jørgensen, a swath of pollen fanning into open air. With a rare stillness of heart and transcendent core, the trio emotes without any discernible force of thought. Distillations of “Asta” appear twice more throughout the album, each a fantastic reflection, a film caught in repeat. “Suffering” laces muted pianism with cello pizzicati from the composer in a web of teardrops. The disc ends with an outtake of this same track, the laughter of which betrays a light and free spirit behind the shadows.

“Incognitor” is the first track by Możdżer. Along with “Easy Money,” it is among his best-known compositions, and pushes the trio paradigm into the wonders of letting go. Możdżer further displays great faculty for eclecticism, as in the tessellation of “Tsunami,” which twists gentle arcs and Byzantine touches in a helix of calm. The title track, co-written with Fresco, runs with scissors in one hand and, in the other, a page torn from the book of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin. A likeminded jam aesthetic imbues the trio’s take on “Svantetic.” This one, by the great Krzysztof Komeda, reveals the influence of Tomasz Stanko, with whom Możdżer has worked in the past. It is notable proof of Fresco’s touch as he sets his planets around a sun-spotted center. Both tunes are puzzles of insight.

Also insightful is the band’s rendition of the Nirvana classic “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” What with the sonorous inner secrets from Danielsson and Możdżer’s deft tracings, the angst of the original melts into a shadow of its former self, even as Fresco’s hand percussion skirts the edges of seizure. Like the wave of clarity that follows a period of suffering, it turns tragedy into a triumph of the spirit.

Majamisty TriO: Mistyland

Mistyland

Pianist Maja Alvanovic, bassist Ervin Malina, and drummer Istvan Cik, known together as the Majamisty TriO, forge a path through the jazz landscape every bit as thoughtful as any of their European contemporaries. Alvanonic draws on her classical foundations—this debut was indeed reissued by Maple Grove Music Productions, a classical outfit out of the band’s native Serbia—for an intensely lyrical, at times somber, but ever-gorgeous sound.

All of the tunes on Mistyland owe origin to Alvanovic’s pen, except for the Brazilian-flavored “Happy Love Song” (by her father Blaza Alvanovic) and Errol Garner’s evergreen “Misty,” which at her fingertips becomes a piece of exponential crystal, with two beginnings for every ending. Crafting bright, optimistic melodies is Alvanovic’s strong suit, as is clear in “Landscape.” The album’s opener combines the gentle propulsions of her keyboarding with a wing-clipped rhythm section. Much of what follows is similarly evocative, throwing heads back in the revelry of clever rhythm changes and turns of phrase. Heartfelt ballads (“She Said…”) share breath with the minor-inflected curls of “The Tear” toward locomotive destinations (“Tuesday”), traversing airbrushed borders between waking and sleeping along the way. This emotional Rubik’s cube is at one moment sweeping and cinematic (“With You”), the next decidedly classical in scope, as in the Satie-esque “Waltz for Sofija.”

Majamisty
(Photo credit: Sinisa Ponjevic)

Alvanovic’s compositions, however, further allow the album’s only questionable inclusion: that of guest vocalist Aleksandra Drobac, who treats her voice like a fourth instrument, wordless and melodic, in tracks such as “Lullaby for Iva” and “Red Like.” As lovely as her voice is on its own, it adds little to the trio’s already-verdant sound, making it feel rather like an impressionist rendering every single leaf of a tree when only a few indicative strokes are needed. That said, after a few listens it becomes easier to feel Drobac’s colors blending into the rest, so that by then they begin to seem parts of the whole.

Improvisationally speaking, this is by no means a risky album, but in that respect provides vast comfort through its artful virtuosity. Alvanovic and her bandmates hold their own in an industry flooded with trios. Their vessel sails true with an attention to melodic detail known well by ECM listeners, for whom Mistyland might very well constitute a positive discovery.

(To preview the entire album, click on over to the band’s website here.)

Dario Castello/Giovanni Battista Fontana: Sonate concertate in stil moderno (ECM New Series 2106)

Sonate concertate in stil moderno

Dario Castello
Giovanni Battista Fontana
Sonate concertate in stil moderno

John Holloway violin
Lars Ulrik Mortensen harpsichord
Jane Gower dulcian
Recorded June 2008 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

John Holloway has charted a veritable history of the Baroque violin across the waters of ECM’s New Series, but perhaps none so tantalizing as the selections he has assembled for this benchmark recording. Holloway notes a special affinity for Dario Castello (1590-1658) and Giovanni Battista Fontana (1571-1630), composers whose works he played as interludes in vocal music concerts early on in his career. Now, nearly four decades later, he allows them the full force of center stage.

This program’s featured sonatas denote a time when the violin was coming into its own as a melodic lead (where before it was merely a consort instrument) and the portability and projection of the fagotto, an early incarnation of the bassoon known also as the dulcian, replaced the viola da gamba as the bass line in chamber ensembles. Historical bassoon specialist Jane Gower plays the dulcian alongside Holloway—with whom, as always, is harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen. It’s a formidable trio playing formidable music, but with a graciousness born of knowledge and experience.

Holloway Mortensen Gower

In her book Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music, musicologist Susan McClary brilliantly describes Dario Castello’s instrumental pieces as latching onto “a succession of impulses—some ordered with respect to goals, to be sure, but others producing extended passages of hovering.” Such a characterization might easily carry over into the concerto, to which this music represents a transitional link. Castello’s distinctly Venetian ornaments and flair for ecstatic denouements make of the listening—and, one can only imagine, the performing—a rewarding experience. The album is bookended by six sonatas from his two massive books of the same. All but two, the Sonata Prima à Sopran Solo and the Sonata Seconda à Sopran Solo, feature the dulcian. Those without boast a staggering variety of speeds, dynamics, and textures. Holloway and friends negotiate transitions between slow, reflective stretches of beauty and their cathartic outbursts with ease, and by those changes underscore a grand (but never grandiose) sense of development. Sonatas with the dulcian outweigh the potential complexities of the combination with awareness of line and form. Like masterful Celtic knotters, composer and musicians attend to every curve. Gower’s contributions (note especially the Sonata Ottava à due. Sopran e Fagotto) add depth of character to Mortensen’s sparkling frame, while Holloway enlivens the music’s cyclicity with meticulous intonation. The concluding Sonata Ottava à due. Sopran e Fagotto indeed brims with dramatic finality and, for its quick-witted arpeggios and filigreed structure, is the most virtuosic of them all.

It’s only natural that the music of Giovanni Battista Fontana, closest in style to Castello’s, should occupy the program’s center. Here we are treated to seven of his concerto sonatas, of which four do without the dulcian. To these Holloway brings a rustic energy by means of his bow, yielding and dancing in a veritable profusion of flora and fauna. Fontana, it might be said, was even more of an expository composer than Castello, as evidenced by tactile Sonata Terza Violino Solo and flowing tempi of the Sonata Sesta Violino Solo. Even more so with the dulcian in tow, as in the charged interactions of the Sonata Decima Fagotto e Violino. If these pieces seem more temperate, however, it’s only because the transitions between subdivisions are less explicit, marking as they do a time of great invention in the Italian sonata, so dutifully preserved for our own desire and pleasure for countless years to come.

Beating the Highs and Lows: Sō Percussion at Bailey

So Percussion

Sō Percussion
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
October 24, 2014
8:00pm

Percussion ensembles and their repertoires can be hard sells in the contemporary music market. On the one hand, their emphasis on rhythm over, or in tandem with, melody makes them accessible to a broader audience than their classical allegiances might have us believe. On the other, that very slipperiness renders them moving targets in a genre-driven industry. The members of Sō Percussion, one of the leading quartets of its kind, bring such an eclectic mix of backgrounds, tastes, and talents to the table that any reliance on category would seem long dead. That said, Friday evening’s concert at Bailey Hall charted a disorienting EKG graph of peaks and valleys that left behind more questions than answers.

The program’s frame consisted of two perennial classics by composer Steve Reich. His 1973 Music for Pieces of Wood—a composition for five woodblock players that required a helping hand from Sō’s Operations Manager, Yumi Tamashiro—was captivating and clean. Although not overtly about melody, its pitch-tuned surfaces nevertheless overlapped in melodic ways, blending waves of rhythm into a seamless whole. Clapping Music, composed the year before, was the concert’s encore. Consisting of nothing but clapping hands, it brought the art of percussion to an even more primal level, using only the body and its discipline to enliven the space.

Moving in from either end, however, brought us to the program’s longest pieces, both of which relied on gimmicks that outweighed their musical results. Intriguingly, the score of Todd Lerew’s Flagging Entrainment of Ultradian Rhythms and the Consequences Thereof was mapped out like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, guiding performers to change paths based on their interactions (or lack thereof) with one another. Conceptually robust, despite the title’s dubious use of the word “ultradian,” and not without its beauties (the recurrence of bowed vibraphones and glockenspiels was nothing short of haunting), by the end it was unclear as to what the exercise was meant to achieve. In stark contrast to John Zorn’s influential game and file-card pieces of the 1970s and 80s, this one established a vague mood at best, in service of which beauty for its own sake felt ultimately arbitrary.

Sitting somewhere between the Bowed Piano Ensemble pieces of Stephen Scott and the guitar symphonies of Glenn Branca, but approaching the depths of neither, was Bryce Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings. An electric guitarist known for his work with The National, Dessner enriches a selective rank of rock musicians, such as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, that have had successful careers as composers. Yet whereas in other projects—check out his brilliant, heartfelt Aheym, in collaboration with the Kronos Quarte—he shines, too many rough patches overwhelmed the light of this particular experiment. The conceit of Music for Wood and Strings is a quartet of instruments, each a chromatically arrayed guitar neck laid flat and played like a dulcimer. Built with the assistance of drummer Aron Sanchez, who has also designed instruments for the Blue Man Group, their properties were exhaustively explored by Dessner and the musicians in kind. Despite the composer’s professed attempt to align “triadic chord inversions…in complex rhythm patterns to create a kaleidoscopic effect of harmony,” the end effect was neither rhythmically complex nor kaleidoscopic. After about the fifth missed opportunity for an ending, I was left asking: Had this piece been played on standard instruments—pianos, for example, or even plain old dulcimers, for that matter—would it have sustained attention for 30 minutes?

All of which left us with the program’s two star turns. As part of their ongoing commitment to education, the members of Sō Percussion held brief residency at Cornell last spring, during which time they collaborated with student composers to yield new works premiered during Friday night’s performance. Tonia Ko and Corey Keating, both D.M.A. students at Cornell, presented their pieces via the ensemble’s meticulous, animated approach. Ko’s Real Voices and Imagined Clatter was a multifaceted exploration of that juggernaut of the symphony orchestra: the timpani drum. Although her piece also made ample use of gimmicks and extended techniques, none seemed extraneous but rather a means by which to bring out the inner voices of the liberated drums. The strength of her piece was in the details: in the small gong that added a hint of gamelan, in the large gong struck only occasionally, in the delicate triangle and woodblocks clattering throughout. The atmosphere was immediate, artful, and, for lack of a better word, mountainous.

Keating’s Audio Geometry (Pythagorean Triple) for Percussion and Electronics might also be convicted of pretentious titling if it did not practice what it preaches. Scored for marimbas and live electronics, the latter courtesy of the composer on stage, it mapped a resonant and unearthly soundscape. Distortions derived from rehearsals of the piece itself were recycled, warped, and fed through echo chambers in a sampling spiral. What separated his and Ko’s pieces from the program’s subcutaneous selections was their willingness to be closed circuits. Each said what it wanted to say and nothing more. They were also the most musical, moving with organic care by way of a thinking-out-loud approach far more akin to jazz than to merely pedantic composing.

Despite the concert’s low points, and as emphasized by its highs, it was refreshing to encounter unfamiliar music and unfamiliar instruments sandwiched between two evergreens in the field. If anything, the evening’s diversity proved the bravery and exploratory spirit of four souls whose love for the beat reigns supreme.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)