Fred Hersch review for The NYC Jazz Record

the-ballad-of-fred-hersch

An intimate portrait of a pianist and composer at the height of his career, produced and directed by Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozano, this documentary polishes facets of Hersch’s life that may be less obvious to casual fans. Viewers are introduced to Hersch as he descends the stairs of New York’s Jazz Standard to set up for a performance. From a web of starts, stops and stolen glances, the sound of a musician who now stands among the giants of jazz piano takes shape.

In the words of music critic David Hadju, one of a handful of advocates interviewed, “Fred’s music is borderless” and the film shows that characterization extending further to his personality. As one who embodies the art of improvisation outside the cage of performance, Hersch is invested in the outcomes of jazz beyond boundaries. It’s there in his organic mosaic of traditions and influences, in his willingness to work with a variety of musicians and in his activism as an HIV-positive gay man. The latter point, largely yet respectfully stressed throughout, is vital to understanding his music’s river-like qualities, which constitute nothing less than an ode-in-progress to life itself.

Nowhere is this so boldly expressed than in his My Coma Dreams, the preparations for and premiere of which dominate this documentary’s second half. Inspired by a series of vivid dreams Hersch experienced after an infection forced him into a coma in 2008, this multimedia work employs speech, video projection and live musicians to tell the story of his recovery. As pianist Jason Moran points out, however, more important than Hersch’s brush with death are the ways in which this magnum opus underscores his historical importance as a torchbearer of jazz’ reckoning with hardship. It’s a message underscored by his biography, which the filmmakers uncover through interviews with his mother Florette Hoffheimer and partner Scott Morgan, but also by his tireless mission to treat music as reality over fantasy. Hersch is keen on acknowledging the specificity of any given performance as an event and hopes that listeners may do the same in return.

((This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

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Eberhard Weber review for The NYC Jazz Record

The Jubilee Concert

At the summit of a prosperous career on stage and, following a decades-long stint with ECM Records, German bassist Eberhard Weber suffered a stroke and has not played since 2007. In October of 2015 (a year in which he also received the Landesjazzpreis Baden-Württemberg, a lifetime achievement award), jubilee concerts were held at the Theaterhaus in Weber’s hometown of Stuttgart to honor his 75th birthday and contributions to jazz.

This DVD of that same event features the SWR Big Band conducted in turns by Helge Sunde and Michael Gibbs, along with guests Jan Garbarek (saxophone), Gary Burton (vibraphone), Paul McCandless (reeds) and, returning to the fold, Pat Metheny (guitar). The latter’s “Hommage” is the centerpiece—a sprawling 30-minute composition built around archival video footage of Weber from the 1980s. More than any other musician on the roster, Metheny bottles the Weber-ian spirit like the lightning that it is.

In contrast to the sprightly figure on screen, the first image of the concert is of an aged Weber hobbling to his seat of honor by aid of a cane. Following this, his “Résumé” finds Garbarek improvising over a more recent audio recording. It’s a fitting way to start, given that Weber was such a fixture of Garbarek’s quartet. Much of what follows reflects almost somberly on a touching career. Arrangements by Ralf Schmid and Rainer Tempel of classic tunes from Weber’s golden age are showcases for Burton and McCandless while those by Gibbs rejuvenate “Maurizius” (from the 1982 album Later that Evening) and Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe.” But it’s the jovial energies of Libor Šíma, who reimagines “Street Scenes” and “Notes After An Evening” (both from 1993’s Pendulum), which win the day.

In the liner notes for Hommage à Eberhard Weber, the 2016 ECM album culled from this same event, Metheny waxes indebtedly about Weber’s “sonic fingerprint that even all these years later remains as uniquely identifiable and fresh as it was on first hearing back then.” As this landmark performance shows, Weber continues to innovate, even without strings at his fingertips.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Márta and György Kurtág: In memoriam Haydée (ECM New Series 5508)

In memoriam Haydée

Márta and György Kurtág
In memoriam Haydée
Játékok – Games and Transcriptions for piano solo and four hands
Piano Recital
Cité de la musique, Paris
22 September 2012

Márta and György Kurtág piano
Filmed September 22, 2012 at Cité de la musique, Paris
Directed by Isabelle Foulard
An LGM Télévision production in association with Cité de la musique
Producer: Sabrina Iwanski
Executive producer: Pierre-Martin Juban

In September of 2012, Hungarian composer György Kurtág and his wife Márta gave a concert at Cité de la musique in Paris to honor the memory of a dear friend, musicologist Haydée Charbagi (1979-2008). Their program, as adventurous as it was delightful, combined piano transcriptions for two and four hands, exuding such intimacy that it’s a wonder the audience didn’t just melt away from all the love in the hall. For those not present, this DVD bears witness to the Kurtágs’ unbridled passion for each other and the music that passes between them. The program’s bulk is culled from György’s own Játékok (Games), an ever-growing miscellany of dedications to the living and dead alike. It’s also a tribute to classical roots on the whole, as indicated by the composer’s transcriptions of Bach chorales—each a towering trunk among his otherwise microscopic foliage.

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There’s something dark yet wondrous about the first dissonances that creep from the stage. Saying hello with a farewell, György approaches the score as if it were a poem (such philosophies were, in fact, the subject of Charbagi’s thesis). And perhaps nothing so omnipresent as poetry could express either the compactness or vigor of each brushstroke. As observer, Márta stands like an appreciative statue before joining him at the keyboard. At times, she caresses him on the shoulder after he finishes a solo, an unspoken signal to connect the dots.

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Those very points of light sparkle in pieces like Flowers we are…, which in conjunction with the pantheonic Baroque selections enables a poignant contradiction: namely, that Bach’s music eminently looks forward while György looks backward, leaving us in the middle like the binding of an open book. His own responsory is as much a reflection of the one to whom it is dedicated (Joannis Pilinszky) as the composer who vaulted the form.

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With most at or under a minute, these concert selections are rife with inflection. There are moments of staggering beauty, especially in the Hommages, such as the Hommage à Christian Wolff, with its tip-toed notecraft, the resonant Hommage à Stravinsky – Bells, and the Hommage à Farkas Ferenc in its multiple incarnations, each more nuanced than the last and ideally suited to the composer’s greatest interpreter, Márta.

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Campanule, as with so much of what transpires, expresses the pregnancy of emptiness, and the potential for healing amid broken motifs. This would seem to be the underlying message also of playful asides such as the fierce exchange of single notes that is Beatings – Quarelling and the kindred Furious Chorale. Another elliptical piece, Study to Pilinszky’s “Hölderlin, gives musical interpretation of a poem written for Mr. Kurtág and reinforces the concert’s overarching theme, while the dramatic (Palmstroke) and the programmatic (Stubbunny and Tumble-bunny) trip over one another in search of continuity.

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Director Isabelle Soulard focuses on these passages in close-cropped framings, allowing the tender lattice of Aus der Ferne, written for the 80th birthday of Alfred Schlee, and the confectionary first movement of Bach’s E-flat major Trio Sonata (BWV 525) to shine all the brighter among this crowd of lamentations. For if anything, György’s art is about remembrance—a point driven home by the three encores, all of which reiterate pieces featured in the main program: the Hommage à Stravinsky and two of the Bach arrangements. Were it not for programs and obsessive musical minds, we might not even notice the repetition, as life consists of nothing but.

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Dino Saluzzi & Anja Lechner: El Encuentro (ECM 5051)

El Encuentro (1)

Dino Saluzzi
Anja Lechner
El Encuentro: A film for bandoneon and violoncello
Directors: Norbert Wiedmer and Enrique Ros
Camera: Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer
Editing: Katharina Bhend
Sound, sound editing, and sound mix: Balthasar Jucker
Production: PS Film, Biograph Film
Co-produced by SRF
Post-production: Recycled TV

In Sounds and Silence, Norbert Wiedmer produced a rather fleeting portrait of ECM Records and its head Manfred Eicher, leaving viewers with, at best, vague sketches by trying to do too much in one go. But with El Encuentro, glimpses of which one might remember seeing in the former documentary, he has given us the film that should have been. Along with co-director Enrique Ros, Wiedmer touches more of the label’s ethos by following only two of its major artists than Sounds and Silence does in profiling many more besides. Despite being from opposite sides of the Atlantic, gentle giant of the bandoneón Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner have bridged waters of their own making since 1998, when they first collaborated in the Kultrum project that featured the Rosamunde Quartett, of which the cellist was founder.

What makes El Enceuntro such an insightful window is the relative clarity of its narrative glass. At its core is a trip taken by Dino and Anja—so one feels compelled to call them after getting to know them so well by the end credits—to Salta, Argentina, where the bandoneonista absorbed the tango that would become central to his life. It’s an art form that would become increasingly important for Anja, who cites her own deep knowledge of, and respect, for the tango as a motivation for forging this intergenerational partnership with Dino. She recalls learning these rhythms for the first time in Argentina, where signatures rendered cut and dry through classical training now blossomed at her fingertips, reinvigorated.

El Encuentro 1

Dino meanwhile looks back on memories of his father, who after working a long day at the factory would sing for their village. Dino took to his father’s love of song like a sunset to ocean and, as the film makes clear, has passed that spirit on to Anja in kind. Indeed, the cellist says that even though Dino is always more comfortable playing with his family, she feels she has become a part of it. Whether dancing with the locals or navigating a recording session with Dino and his brother Felix, she adapts with chameleonic precision—which is to say: unthinkingly.

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But Dino’s story is as much about leaving home as finding it. He regales us with stories of putting his home country behind him to support his family, and of finding an unexpected brother in the late George Gruntz, who in 1982, as president of the Berlin Jazz Festival, traveled to Latin America in search of musicians and recruited Dino on the spot. No one in Gruntz’s band had ever seen or heard a bandoneón before, and this opportunity would prove career-defining.

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The past, however, is never too far behind. As Dino admits, “I compose with memories and hopes,” and in so doing kneads the passage of time into desired shapes. In this respect, the film is as much a meeting of lives as of minds. Anja lets us in on her own past: playing with rock bands at age 12, among whom she learned to improvise in the heat of the moment; hearing Dino’s music for the first time in Munich, where she’d so dutifully immersed herself in classical music of the European masters, even while surrounding herself with the melodies and forms of other places. And for her that’s the key. You have to go to these places to experience the emotional core of their music. Location is vocation. It’s something that cannot be substituted or recreated.

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None of this is meant to suggest that Lechner has abandoned her classical foundations. Far from it, as evidenced in her interactions with composer Tigran Mansurian in Armenia, the country dearest to her after Argentina.

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The cameras are there again for conversations with Levon Eskenian, who explains to her the sacred music of Armenia, and how when playing folksongs on the duduk one must always convey a sense of improvisation. Anja thus characterizes life in Armenia as more immediate, whereas in Argentina people truly engage and look into you. Such is the balance of her traveling life.

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On Dino’s own travels, no companion has been more constant than his trusted bandoneón. “I can’t conceive of life without the bandoneón,” he says. “The instrument has spoken with modesty since its conception. It doesn’t raise its voice, it only speaks with calmness, simplicity, and directness. All of the words are written here. All of the thoughts are here. All of the difficult equations are here. You only have to serve to bandoneón and understand that you’re letting the human experience pass through other channels.” But he also believes that bandoneonists should explore beyond the tango and create new forms of music. As if his recordings weren’t already ample proof of this advice in action, excerpts from concerts with drummer U.T. Gandhi and singer Alessandra Franco, and with the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam’s Musiekgebouw under the baton of Jules Buckley, show just how catalytic the instrument can be.

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But it is in combination with the cello where channels of communication open their hearts to the vastest possibilities. Just as Anja says, “Music is a world in which all emotions exist,” so are emotions a world in which all music exists. And at their center, we can feel these two souls creating a third for the listener to inhabit at will.

Saluzzi and Lechner
(Photo credit: Juan Hitters)

Early on in the film, Dino wonders how people can connect at all to his melancholic music, even as he recognizes something that meets the listener halfway. “For me,” he goes on, “doubt is driving force. It’s like gasoline. You use gasoline to run a car. And for us to work, we need doubt. Because if doubt is a driving force, then it can’t become a paralyzing problem. On the contrary, it’s a generator of ideas and desires, of searches and answers to the great questions we have.” And if we must be the electricity that powers this generator, how fortunate we are to be swept up in its current.

Keith Jarrett Trio: Live In Japan 93/96 (ECM 5504/05)

Live In Japan

Keith Jarrett Trio
Live In Japan 93/96

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
DVD 1
Recorded live in Tokyo, July 25, 1993 at Open Theater East
Director: Kaname Kawachi
Recorded by Toshio Yamanaka
Produced by Yasuhiko Sato
Executive producers: Hisao Ebine and Toshinari Koinuma
DVD 2
Recorded live in Tokyo, March 30, 1996 at Hitomi Memorial Hall
Director: Kaname Kawachi
Recorded by Toshio Yamanaka
Produced by Yasuhiko Sato
Executive producers: Hisao Ebine and Toshinari Koinuma
Concerts produced by Koinuma Music

It’s one thing to hear, but quite another to see, the Keith Jarrett Trio in action. For those unable to do so in a live setting, this two-DVD release is the next best thing. Like the Standards I/II set that precedes it, this one was recorded in Tokyo, but puts about a decade between those first Japan performances.

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A 1993 gig at Open Theater East takes place in the heart of a sweltering summer. The air shines both with the music and with the rain that forces a large and dedicated audience to listen from beneath ponchos, and the musicians to play from beneath a clear canopy. The video quality is much finer this time around, and despite a rocky start born of technical issues and the weather, captures one of the trio’s finest sets available on any medium.

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What separates this concert from the others available on DVD is the openness of the band’s aura. Jarrett more than ever plays for his appreciative listeners because he understands the bond into which nature has pushed them. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Jarrett’s The Köln Concert also famously began in the least ideal of conditions. Clearly, the pressure set him on an unprecedented creative path. And so, even as the trio struggles to feel out the climate in Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” (throughout which Jarrett must often wipe down the keyboard with a towel), all while latecomers snake to their seats, we can feel the groove emerging one muscle at a time. After the worldly touches of “Butch And Butch” and “Basin Street Blues,” we know that things have been set right.

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Whereas in the previous Japan documents Peacock proved himself the man of the hour (although, to be sure, the breadth of his architectures in “If I Were A Bell” and “I Fall In Love Too Easily” are as masterful as they come), it’s DeJohnette who produces the deepest hues of this rainbow. His sticks make evergreens like Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” that much greener, and turn a 26-minute rendition of Miles Davis’s “Solar,” combined with Jarrett’s “Extension,” into a downright sacred space.

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As with the 1986 concert on Standards I/II, the trio ends on three encores: “Bye Bye Blackbird,” Jarrett’s “The Cure,” and “I Thought About You.” In all of this one can sense a quiet storm of commitment to the music that flows from within. Melodies breathe, reborn, requiring open hearts to know their graces.

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The year 1996 brings us to Hitomi Memorial Hall, where Jarrett and friends jump fully refreshed into “It Could Happen To You.” As always, Jarrett’s lyrical intro reveals little about the mosaics soon to follow. He takes the theme and its surrounding chords as a starting point down densely textured corridors. Which is, of course, what improvisation is all about: dungeon crawling without a map yet knowing that a destination will wrap its arms around you eventually. Jarrett seems to unravel every possible path into its fullest and on through the ballad “Never Let Me Go,” in which the pianist transcends the status of storyteller to that of myth keeper.

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“Billie’s Bounce” is a staple not only for its composer, Charlie Parker, but also for Jarrett. As one of his prime expressive spaces, it layers all the bread and butter that make his art so nourishing. But we mustn’t forget that each member of this unit is equally important. In “Summer Night,” Peacock’s gentility is Jarrett’s flame, shining like the moon with a song to sing, and DeJohnette’s opening to “I’ll Remember April” shows a drummer with just as much to say from the bedrock, even as Jarrett evolves in real time through every change in the rapids above.

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Other standbys such as “Mona Lisa” and crowd favorite “Autumn Leaves” open as many new avenues as they retread. With a crispness of feeling, Jarrett grabs the spotlight, while lively soloing from Peacock and fancy brushwork from DeJohnette make the picture whole. Even the familiar strains of “Last Night When We Were Young” become something new when they melt into Jarrett’s groovier “Carribean Sky.” It’s what one can always count on with this trio: playing as if for the first time.

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The Bud Powell tune “John’s Abbey” commands from the sidelines as Peacock and DeJohnette go from canter to gallop and sets off a rapid-fire succession of closing tunes. A touching rendition of “My Funny Valentine” falls like a tear of quiet joy into Jarrett’s “Song,” in which the musicians open a book you always meant, and at last have the chance, to read again. “All The Things You Are” and Ray Bryant’s lesser-heard “Tonk” end the set with a satiating balance of delights. Nothing added, nothing taken away.

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Keith Jarrett Trio: Standards I/II – Tokyo (ECM 5502/03)

Standards Tokyo

Keith Jarrett Trio
Standards I/II – Tokyo

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
DVD 1
Recorded live in Tokyo, February 15, 1985 at Koseinenkin Hall
Director: Kaname Kawachi
Recorded and mixed by Toshio Yamanaka
Production coordinator: Toshinari Koinuma
Produced by Masafumi Yamamoto
Executive producer: Hisao Ebine
DVD 2
Recorded live in Tokyo, October 26, 1986 at Hitomi Memorial Hall
Director: Kaname Kawachi
Recorded and mixed by Seigen Ono
Production coordinator: Toshinari Koinuma
Produced by Masafumi Yamamoto
Executive producer: Hisao Ebine
Concerts produced by Koinuma Music

Standards I/II is an invaluable two-DVD archive of the Keith Jarrett Trio’s inaugural tours of Japan. The first, recorded at Tokyo’s Koseinenkin Hall on 15 February 1985, offers the pianist at his heartfelt best in an intro as tender as a drizzling rain. So begins a smooth version of “I Wish I Knew,” through the lens of which bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette illuminate the spectrum of this format like few others can. What distinguishes them, as made clear in this concert opener, is their consistent ability to surprise. Sure, the technical prowess required to carry off such florid versions of “If I Should Lose You” and “It’s Easy To Remember” is formidable to say the least, but how much more virtuosity there is to be savored in the ballads. The night-laden memories of “Late Lament” add softness to the set list’s emerging palette, even as they whisper in a language as crystalline as all the rest. This is a diamond in which every occlusion represents an opportunity for clarity. “Stella By Starlight” starts with Peacock and Jarrett emoting in space and time without allegiance to either, working into a 14-minute groove so sublime that it melts.

Standards 1

To be sure, the more upbeat tunes have a crispness all their own. “If I Should Lose You” finds Jarrett listening intently to his bandmates, who exchange tactile glances in anticipation of DeJohnette’s rolling play. But whether the drummer is riding the rails in “It’s Easy To Remember” or adding choice accents to a diagonal “God Bless The Child,” he leaves plenty of room for his audience to grow in kind.

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Jarrett originals such as “Rider” and “Prism” showcase his penchant for gospel and Byzantine grooves. In these tunes the band reaches a high point of synchronicity, working a detail-oriented art into a genre all its own. Even the lighter “So Tender” retains full emotional accuracy, going all in via Peacock’s supernal melodizing. All of which leads to sixteen and a half minutes of soulful unpacking in “Delaunay’s Dilemma.” Peacock fascinates again in his soloing toward the finish line, while DeJohnette sings even as he punches his way toward bluesy victory.

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The second Japan concert was recorded at Hitomi Memorial Hall, also in Tokyo, on 26 October 1986. This standards extravaganza is the regression to the previous concert’s progression, but loses no sense of integrity for its introversion. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” eases into things with sweeping finesse such as only Jarrett can pull off. It is followed by “With A Song In My Heart,” the meditation of which morphs into some solid invigorations. Peacock and DeJohnette share a flawless rapport, the drummer popping off that snare like a machine gun.

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So begins an alternating pattern of valleys and peaks, which by the end leave behind an even more cohesive program than the first. We next dip down into a tune the trio plays like no one else: “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Jarrett’s rendering makes even the most familiar blossom anew with emotional honesty. The mastery on display in this quintessential example is as pliant as Peacock’s strings, and carries over into the interlocking tempi of “All Of You.” For this, the bassist leaps forward with the first of two solos, moving from robust to filigreed without loss of syncopation.

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The bassist turns out to be the sun of this solar system, lathering a mysterious yet lucid “Georgia On My Mind” and a duly nostalgic “When I Fall In Love” with enough light to spare in conversation with his bandmates. DeJohnette, for his part, airbrushes the night sky in “Blame It On My Youth” and lets the groove be known behind “Love Letters.” And in tandem with Jarrett, he feeds magic into the masterstroke of “You And The Night And The Music.” Unforgettable.

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Each of the three encores—“On Green Dolphin Street,” “Woody ’n You,” and “Young And Foolish”—is a virtuosic gem set to twinkling and reminds us that Jarrett and his associates came this far only by selecting their divergences lovingly.

Prashant Bhargava & Vijay Iyer: Radhe Radhe – Rites of Holi (ECM 5507)

Radhe Radhe

Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi

Vijay Iyer composer
Prashant Bhargava film director, editor
Anna George actor
Craig Marsden director of photography
International Contemporary Ensemble
Eric LambLaura Jordan Cocks: flute, alto flute, piccolo
Joshua Rubin: clarinet, bass clarinet
Rebekah Heller: basoon, contrabasoon
Gareth FlowersAmir Elsaffar: trumpet
Jennifer Curtis: violin
Kyle Armbrust: viola
Kivie Cahn-Lipman: cello
Cory Smythe: piano
Ross Karre: percussion
Tyshawn Sorey: percussion, drum set
Adam Sliwinski: conductor
Vijay Iyer: piano, electronics
Soundtrack produced by Vijay Iyer and Manfred Eicher.
Recorded live at Memorial Hall, UNC Chapel Hill, March 26, 2013
Engineer: Frank Martin/Media Production Associates
Live concert sound engineer: Levy Lorenzo
Additional recording at The Bunker Studio, April 20, 2014
Engineer: John Davis
Mixed at Avatar Studios, NYC by James Farber, Vijay Iyer, and Manfred Eicher
Assistant: Aki Nishimura
Additional engineering, editing, and consultation: Liberty Ellman

Bird

Ron Fricke’s 1992 classic Baraka endures as one of the most consummate examples of non-narrative cinema. Its montage of images from around the world was even more eclectic than the soundtrack that went along with it. But despite the many ceremonies, creative arts, and labors that Fricke documented—including death pyres and ritual baths in the river Ganges—he never captured the Hindu religious festival known as Holi. Had he done so, it might have looked something like Radhe Radhe.

Opening Shot

Filmmaker Prashant Bhargava’s ode to this so-called “festival of colors” traces the eight-day celebration back to Mathura, mythic birthplace of the supreme deity Krishna and his lover (in the strongest sense) Radha. Hence the film’s title, a term of praise and greeting often exchanged in the streets of Mathura, where she is believed to be a gateway to true understanding of Krishna. Her power is a central theme, an explosion of devotion far more vivid than the human-made pigment sold on the streets in the weeks leading up to this cathartic event.

Given the film’s subtitle, “Rites of Holi,” and the fact that Holi is practiced in the spring may put one in mind of Igor Stravinsky. This is no coincidence. Although not a direct homage to Stravinsky, Radhe Radhe was the result of a commission for the 100th anniversary of the Russian composer’s Rite of Spring, and one of a dozen projects freshly created in its honor. It is still a ballet of sorts, not least of all for the dialogic contributions of Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer. In a manner of speaking, he and Bhargava met halfway—the director boiling down over 30 hours of footage into a 35-minute film and the composer expanding molecular impressions into a fully integrated score—so that the finished product was a narrative duly rendered. Iyer’s task was to match Bhargava’s rhythms, taking the listener through what he calls a “series of energies.”

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Bhargava first gained international attention with his debut feature Patang (The Kite) in 2011. That his roots grabbed their soil in hip-hop and graffiti art should come as no surprise, for his gifts of rhythm, poetry, and color were likeminded in their urban respect. But with Radhe Radhe he went further underground, mining deeper traditions of those same creative registers. The film is, then, as much a musical as it is a visual tour de force, building like a raga to near-ecstatic heights. Indeed, before a single image graces our retinas, Iyer’s pianism sets the stage over a dark title screen. Slight dissonances therein betray something of the chaos about to unfold, but obscure enough of it so that we might experience it anew, even in multiple viewings. Along with the young musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Iyer creates a mood that is beautifully unsettling, and all the more organic for it.

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The film’s first part, “Adoration,” builds its intimacies one stratum at a time. The stage is set in a misty landscape. We see only details: boatmen preparing for the days’ revelry, a bare back, a glimpse of braided hair. The streets then come to life as food vendors ready their meals and women wash their garments in the river. The soundtrack is restless, anticipatory. A cargo train passes by, as if to underscore the film’s narrative drive. More fragments: a face half-reflected in a mirror, candles burning on an altar, a gossamer veil. As crowds thicken and the dance begins, Iyer’s pianism brightens. Even the birds in the field seem to join in. Flute and brass contrast one another with purpose. Their notes flower and wither, changing focus like the lens that guides them. Strings and percussion add color streamers of their own as the iconic powder hits the air.

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Part 2, “Transcendence,” puts further emphasis on Bhargava’s footage of an imaginary Radha played by actress Anna George. He spins from these scenes, shot in the US and woven throughout the film, a primal and sexual interplay that signals the true emergence of spring. It’s a bold move, as the director himself is first to admit in the DVD’s “Making Of” segment, but he wanted to bring that “everyday magic, that intimacy that we share as people to the narratives of the gods.” He believes that the push and pull of Radha and Krishna exists in all of us, as it does also in the increasingly inseparable relationship between sounds and scenarios. A trumpet, for example, works its melodic overlay during a long shot of Radha’s face, implying an environment far vaster than the immediate contrivance of the studio.

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As the cinematography becomes more contemplative, the music subdues itself in solidarity. In the same way that Bhargava seems to have eyes in many places at once and flits between them by changing cognitive channels, so too does Iyer’s complementary switching take every movement into account. A sensual flowering of street noise enters the mix, as if bleeding of its own volition, leaving us wanting to shed our inhibitions and dive into that sea of color.

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In May of 2015, Bhargava died at the age of 42 from cardiac arrest after a history of heart disease. But the tragedy of this death is so graciously balanced by the exuberance of his small yet vivid oeuvre that one can focus on the latter in a state of pure invigoration. In this respect, we do well to read Radhe Radhe in the spirit for which it was made. In a world where the rites of Holi have spread to unlikely corners (I witness its rainbowed aftereffects on my American university campus every year), it’s nice to know that one artist’s vision can bring us anytime to the source with just the press of a PLAY button.

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(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)

Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher

Sounds and Silence

If every film has a soundtrack, does it not stand to reason that every soundtrack has a film? This would seem to be the guiding question behind Sounds and Silence. In this unprecedented DVD release, documentarians Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer set out to capture ECM Records as a living entity in which human labor and ingenuity are the dual heart of musical life. Although billed as a “road movie” and patterned by footage of label founder and producer Manfred Eicher in various states of transport, it is equally concerned with the non-literal paths that have led to the creation, sustenance, and influence of the German imprint and its ongoing permutations. They keyword here is “ongoing,” because Eicher and his trust have only intensified their productivity since 1969, when it all began, to the point of releasing, on average, an album per week.

It is almost inevitable that the film’s opening montage and credit sequence should be accompanied by a recording of Keith Jarrett. The pianist is one of ECM’s brightest stars, but is also committed to the power of simplicity, as demonstrated in his rendition of Georges I. Gurdjieff’s “Reading of Sacred Books.” It is an apt description of the filmmakers’ and their process, tasked as they are with interpreting an archive of such magnitude that not even a collective documentary on each album could hope to articulate it. Rather, they must choose to concentrate on specific times, places, and moods in the hope of tapping into something essential to them all. That being said, when Eicher talks of seeking the luminosity of music, which like a comet’s tail leaves behind a pure trace of its being, and philosophizes that music “has no fixed abode,” we begin to realize that such technology of capture as the camera is forever limited in its relationship to the audio realm. For while images suggest associations by their very existence, sounds thrive on the nourishment of our wildest interpretations. Consequently, this film is not so much a behind-the-scenes manifesto of artistic creation as it is a gentle visualization of ECM’s inner heart and its ripple effect across oceans.

Pärt and Eicher
(Manfred Eicher and Arvo Pärt)

Rehearsals with Estonian composer and New Series darling Arvo Pärt at St. Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn yield the documentary’s first proper footage and serve as touchstones for its narrative arc. They offer a strangely profound glimpse into the countless intangibles that go into any ECM recording, but particularly those in which the composer is present, at once presiding over and deferential to the equally intangible magic of a committed performance. Pärt is every bit the contemplative human being one might expect. He feels music with every fiber of his being, and it’s a gift to witness, if only briefly, his childlike sagacity. His face is a veritable gallery of expressions, each attuned to a change in the score and the possibility of making it grow even further toward an unattainable perfection.

Pärt
(Pärt listens intently as conductor Tõnu Kaljuste’s right hand threads the proverbial needle)

During one such scene, a most touching development occurs when, in mutual happiness, Pärt engages Eicher in a dance. This single gesture reveals something perhaps unexpected in both men: in the composer a feeling of bliss that many of us lose in the name of adulthood, in the producer a love for the simple pleasure of forces aligning in exactly the way he wants. Eicher is indeed a guide of uncompromising integrity, and his smile reveals far more about why he does what he does than the iconic and relatively frequent photos of him hunched over yet another mixing board. True dedication to one’s craft, these images suggest, requires not only a seriousness of heart but also a frivolity of spirit.

Dance
(Eicher and Pärt share a dance to the tune of the latter’s Estonian Lullaby)

Between these signposts, we encounter a train of faces and voices, many perhaps for the first time. Interviews with Pärt and his delightfully honest wife Nora, Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou, Tunisian oudist and composer Anouar Brahem, Italian multi-reedist Gianluigi Trovesi and accordionist Gianni Coscia, Argentine bandoneón master Dino Saluzzi, and Eicher himself help us better understand the inconceivable alignments of fate that sometimes must occur just to bring the right people together, much less allow them the space to create whatever they will create. The bellows of Saluzzi’s lungs, for example, prove just as eloquent as those between his fingers when he shares his history as a musician who shunned the academy in favor of raw expression. In him is revealed an educator’s heart, one that seeks to learn as much as enhance learning in others. Brahem is likewise an articulate soul possessed of a subtle wit. His sensitivity toward political matters only serves to enhance appreciation of his sonic endeavors, which in light of his worldview take on new valences of awareness and pacifism. It’s a joy to watch him alone in his home studio, building his tunes, element by element.

Trees
(Only light may part shadow)

As we navigate environmental flashes of Eicher’s travels, we follow the producer to Athens for a monumental performance of Karaindrou’s music (of which he shadows a rehearsal with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and violist Kim Kashkashian), a recording session at Studios La Buissonne in southeastern France with Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin (and the intuition needed to bring out just one muted string hit in post-production), another at Copenhagen’s Sun Studio with Marilyn Mazur, a concert featuring Brahem with pianist François Couturier and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier at the Prinzregententheater in Munich, and mixing Trovesi’s explosive reconstructions of operatic favorites in Bergamo, Italy. Other highlights include footage of said concerts, a brief sojourn to Argentina with Saluzzi and Lechner, some candid moments with the ever-animated Trovesi and his confederate Coscia, and even a peek into ECM’s Munich headquarters, where we see everyday logistics in action, including the meticulous process of selecting album covers.

Cover selection
(Reading between the covers)

In the same way that Eicher seeks to put the listener inside the music, so do the filmmakers try to put us in ECM’s world, and in that spirit we end where we began: with Pärt. Experiencing the consummation of every above-mentioned force is one of the most gratifying passages of the film. The music is the message, because the message exists to be sung.

Pärt rehearsal
(Icons before icons)

ECM’s music has always approached the level of cinema, and so it was only natural that it should be honored in moving pictures. And yet, the end result seems more like the realization of a fantasy than a picture of reality. Throughout the 87-minute duration, the filmmakers make as much as they can out of what little they have. Case in point: Saluzzi and Lechner’s Argentine sojourn. Aside from a hint of social awkwardness, the footage overlaps with another film by co-director Wiedmer (see El Encuentro, also released on an ECM-edition DVD) and is perhaps better saved for that portrait. Its inclusion here feels like recycling and not in the documentary’s best interest.

Another dividing point may be the lack of attention paid to certain other production aspects. Early on in the film, Pärt speaks sagaciously of the recording session as an organism, of which musicians, engineers, and producers are vital organs. And yet, what of those unsung engineers? While of course ECM has none under its employ (they are independent artists working for independent studios), Martin Wieland, Jan Erik Kongshaug, Stephan Schellmann, Peter Laenger, James A. Farber, and, more recently, Stefano Amerio, among others, have all been of vital importance in shaping the label’s distinctive identity. The reality, of course, is that such a film, regardless of maker, can at best only be supplementary and will be of far more interest to the ECM fan than to someone unfamiliar with the label. Nothing can replace the listener. And is that not what Eicher is, above all? Why else would we first encounter him on screen as a man alone with his thoughts, as if listening to the world?

Seated Eicher

And so, it is in the name of listening that I direct your regard to the film’s soundtrack.

ECM_2250_CD

A cover that brings to mind Iro Haarla’s Vespers situates us in a cloud-break with only a snatch of landscape below to indicate the separation of worlds. The composition is emblematic of a label that has always charted indefinable borders between civilization and emptiness, and in so doing has made music seemingly aware of its own mortality. Keith Jarrett’s “Reading of Sacred Books,” written by Georges I. Gurdjieff, asserts nothing but its own lack of assertion. It is instead an expression of transcendence, a confirmation of the energies all around and within us, by which we are able to produce this wonder called music in the first place.

If anything can be said to define ECM’s output, it is memory. Charting that which has already passed in order to open our eyes to that which has yet to come, these musicians have all primed us for the opening of newer doors. This is the spirit of the label: to take the musical moment and craft it into self. Few tracks on this compilation embody this spirit more creatively than “Modul 42” from Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin. After gaining access to the recording process in the film, it’s wonderful to encounter the music on its own terms, to look deep into its eyes and know it’s looking back at (and through) us. The sparkling middle passage ushers us into a world hitherto unknown yet undeniably familiar. Anouar Brahem’s “Sur Le Fleuve” is another slice of magic. Featuring the same trio combination of piano, accordion, and oud as recorded in the film, its marriage of instrumental signatures is nothing short of breathtaking. We can take great comfort in this music, for it is our partner.

Dino Saluzzi’s “Tango a mi padre” played as close to breathing as possible by him and Anja Lechner, speaks to another facet of that fascination with memory, which in this piece is so alive that it weeps for itself. We might, then, hear Vicente Greco’s “Ojos Negros” at the same duo’s hands with renewed sense of purpose. That these two bodies traveling through space and time have found themselves somehow joined at the soul, sharing with one another the details of their upbringing and the unknowns of their future, is a miracle. Also miraculous are two selections from Eleni Karaindrou, whose compositional fabric is spun from her “Farewell Theme,” which floats Jan Garbarek’s soulful tone across an ocean’s wave of strings, as Kim Kashkashian’s aquatic tail leaves its marks in the water, and “To Vals Tou Gamou,” in which piano, accordion, and violin dance like pens across paper. We may listen to this music either poignantly or through the lens of a joy that remains somehow clear in the mists of its origin.

The “Arpeggiata addio” by Giovanni G. Kapsberger, as heard on Rolf Lislevan’s Nuove musiche, likewise speaks of the past in the present. In it we can feel the propulsion of life experience by the power of desire. A voice carries us across the threshold of then and now, cradled in hands chapped like old parchment. Fresher inkwells spill their contents across Marilyn Mazur’s whimsical “Creature Walk,” a piece which as we know from the documentary brings a smile even to her face, and Gianluigi Trovesi’s blistering take on “Così, Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini. Although lit by a canonical match, Trovesi’s candle burns like an instrument of restless beauty in the macabre waltz funneling around him.

Arvo Pärt is also represented twice. His Für Lennart in memoriam is an undeniably dense molecule of emotional transfixion, while the postludinal Da Pacem Domine, after a reprise of Jarrett’s Gurjdieff “Reading,” carries us on its feathered back to the edges of sunset, where awaits the discovery of discovery.

How does one sum up ECM Records? Thankfully this is the purpose of neither the documentary nor its soundtrack. Rather, they exist to give us glimpses into the ever-shifting structure of the label’s skeleton. Following Manfred Eicher on these journeys, whether through eyes or ears, you might just find yourself wondering how so much external architecture could arise from music that is immaterial, only to realize that it’s the other way around.

(To hear samples of the soundtrack, click here.)

Eleni Karaindrou: Elegy of the Uprooting (ECM New Series 5506 & 1952/53)

Eleni Karaindrou
Elegy of the Uprooting

Maria Farantouri voice
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Socratis Sinopoulos Constantinople lyra, laouto
Maria Bildea harp
Konstantinos Raptis bayan
Sergiu Nastasa violin
Renato Ripo violoncello
Stella Gadedi flute
Nikos Guinos clarinet
Sopcratis Anthis trumpet
Spyros Kazianis bassoon
Vangelis Skouras French horn
Aris Dimitriadis mandolin
Christos Tsiamoulis ney
Panos Dimitrakopoulos kanonaki
Andreas Katsiyiannis santouri
Andreas Papas bendir, daouli
Eleni Karaindrou piano
Hellenic Radio and Television Choir
Antonis Kontogeorgiou choirmaster
Camerata Orchestra
Alexandros Myrat conductor
Recorded live March 27, 2005 at Megaron (Hall of the Friends of Music), Athens
Engineers: Nikos Espialidis, Andreas Mandopoulos, and Bobby Blazoudakis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“What am I, if not a collector of vanished gazes?”
–Theo Angelopoulos, Ulysses’ Gaze

Elegy of the Uprooting condenses two decades of work by Eleni Karaindrou into what the Greek composer calls a “scenic cantata.” This is no mere retrospective, but a gravid musical statement in which the listener’s soul is carefully unfolded to reveal the sounds hidden within. Excerpting 13 scores for film and stage, this concert pulls out the red threads running through Karaindrou’s non-diegetic oeuvre with stunning video and audio clarity.

Of the 110 musicians seen in this live DVD—including an orchestra, chorus, and ensemble of traditional instruments—many of the soloists have been working with Karaindrou for many years, and their dedication shows. Of note are…

Vangelis Christopoulos on oboe:

Socratis Sinopoulos on the Constantinople lyra/Maria Bildea on harp:

Konstantinos Raptis on the bayan:

Vangelis Skouras on French horn:

Aris Dimitriadis on mandolin:

Panos Dimitrakopoulos on kanonaki/Christos Tsiamoulis on ney:

and the composer herself at the piano:

Much of the music will be familiar to ECM enthusiasts: Ulysses’ Gaze, The Suspended Step of the Stork, Eternity and a Day, The Weeping Meadow, and Euripedes Trojan Women feature heavily in this wide-ranging program, with the latter two in particular providing a larger thematic framework. Lesser known works such as the stunning Rosa’s Aria—from the film by Christoforos Christofis and reinterpreted here with total corporeal commitment by the legendary Maria Farantouri—should excite veteran and new listeners alike.

The staging was overseen by Manfred Eicher and is accordingly minimal. A large screen behind the musicians displays artfully arranged stills and clips from Angelopoulos’s films, as well as some computer generated imagery of swaying reeds, falling rain, and shooting flames.

It’s a joy and a privilege to see such a synergistic group of musicians banding together to share such doleful beauty, and to see the physical process of it all, the sheer assembly of talent and logistics required in putting together such a performance.

In all this rhetoric lately of carbon footprints and the detrimental impact of human activity on the physical environment, it’s easy to forget that our creativity often leaves the most “eco-friendly” impressions. Karaindrou has created for the world a statement without tangible shape, a visceral wave of melancholy into which we may project a semblance of ourselves. Like the water that figures so prominently in Angelopoulos’s films, her music ebbs and flows in spite of our foibles.

Elegy of the Uprooting is also available in this 2-CD set. I highly recommend both, for each is its own experience.