Winds of Exchange: Simon Shaheen’s Zafir at Cornell

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(Photo credit: Adrian Boteanu)

Simon Shaheen presents Zafir
March 10, 2017
8:00pm
Cornell University, Bailey Hall

String Theory: VIDA Guitar Quartet Live at Cornell

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VIDA Guitar Quartet
February 23, 2017
8:00pm
Cornell University, Barnes Hall

On February 23, 2017, the VIDA Guitar Quartet made its Ithaca debut at Cornell’s Barnes Hall. Since 2007, the British ensemble has been impressing a conscientious sonic footprint on listeners. Seeing them live, however, the interlocking nature of their artistry is apparent not only in their craft, but also in their choice and assembly of programming.

There is, of course, plenty of savvy over which to marvel regarding each player’s technical wheelhouse. Mark Eden’s highs, Mark Ashford’s harmonizing and melodic leads, Amanda Cook’s unbreakable ground lines and Chris Stell’s rhythmic backbone (enhanced by tapping of the guitar body) make for a kindred fit that is rare among quartets of any constitution. By an uncompromising equanimity of individual allotments, VIDA shows its truest colors as a holistic unit.

The concert opens with selections from VIDA’s latest CD, The Leaves be Green, thereby nodding to their homeland. The three-part English Folk Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, based on melodies collected from the British Isles and originally written for marching band, feels most tactile in the version presented here. Two marches, and between them an intermezzo, morph from vivacious to tender and back again. In addition to introducing us to the quartet’s sound, the piece also lends insight into Vaughan Williams’s love for music in its most rudimentary forms (even a tune heard whistled at a pub was fair game for a composer so enamored). By contrast, Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite, a collection of six French courtly and lay dances that would be the short-lived composer’s most popular work, is just as vibrant under VIDA’s fingertips in guitarist Chris Susans’s reimagining (the only arrangement of the program not produced by one of the quartet’s members). More latticed than the macramé of the Vaughan Williams, it emotes as much vertically as horizontally, stretching more than enough canvas to support VIDA’s flourishing foregrounds.

From there, the program seems to change costumes into George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Formidably arranged over a three-year period by VIDA frontman Chris Stell, the new version highlights the brilliance of this timeworn classic’s rhythmic complexities. A piece normally rendered far too grandiose for my taste by dint of its popular orchestral arrangement (the piece was originally written for two pianos), it blossoms through VIDA’s intimate filter and begs new appreciation for its source and for the feat of making it amenable to plucked gut.

After flexing their knuckles during intermission, the musicians return for a lighter — though no less engaging — second half, starting with a highlight of the evening: Mark Eden’s nimble retelling of J. S. Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto. Smooth yet punctuated, flowing yet rhythmically precise, this perennial favorite reveals an inner heart too often glossed over at the touch of a bow. It also shows the quartet at its tessellated best, and underscores the unique sonority of each instrument.

This is followed by two contemporary pieces. The first is by composer Phillip Houghton, who bases his Opals on the beloved precious stone of his native Australia. Each of its movements plies a different atmospheric trade. Where “Black” is jagged and strong, “Water” evokes a pond shimmering in moonlight and “White” coheres with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle. Next is The Great British Rock Journey, written for VIDA by friend Nick Cartledge. A brilliantly composed piece that is a joy to hear, it cycles through familiar riffs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and others. In keeping with the rhapsodic theme, Queen’s instantly recognizable bohemianism provides the longest and most indulgent section, and a quotation of Coldplay’s “Clocks” is surprisingly fresh.

VIDA ends with a selection from the Hungarian Dances of Johannes Brahms, which after the excitement of its predecessors might fall flat if it wasn’t for the musicians’ deft balancing act of texture and character. On that latter note, an encore rendition of the theme from director Carol Reed’s 1949 classic, The Third Man, exits the stage amid a dash of humor by which to remember a performance otherwise steeped in enchanting rigor.

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

Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer: Bringing the Love

Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
February 3, 2017
8:00pm

The double bass is a perennial fixture of many jazz combos. And yet, how rare to hear it on its own terms. Rarer still in duet with a like partner. The Cornell Concert Series kicked off its spring season by proving that a duo of basses could be more than meets the ear. As twin ramparts of their generation, Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer are as masterful as they come. Where one cut his teeth on the jagged edges of jazz, the other was baptized in classical waters. Yet, both have eroded the boundaries of their chosen genres in mutual respect. This respect was nowhere so evident as in Bailey Hall on Friday, where they conversed as friends and allies do: without judgment or fear.

McBride and Meyer evoked a symbiotic relationship on stage. The combinatory powers of their artistries spanned the gamut. On the technical front, Meyer carried a resonant tone and perfect pitch throughout, as emphasized by his mellifluous bowing. McBride, meanwhile, drew a z-axis straight into the audience, going playfully off pitch as only a seasoned jazzman can, to emphasize flexibility of every note. In short: Meyer sang and McBride spoke.

This dynamic held true whether the duo was navigating the well-trodden landscapes of standards like “My Funny Valentine” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” or escorting listeners along far-less-traveled compositions between them. The concert opened in the latter vein with Meyer’s own “Green Slime,” a decidedly funky jaunt bearing all the benchmarks of either musician’s idiosyncrasies. McBride’s “Lullaby for a Ladybug” later revealed a softer side, and for it the composer played at the piano, by which he clothed its childlike whimsy in the tender skin of balladry. And their jointly written “Bass Duet #1,” a blues with postmodern touches.

The reigning highlights of the program were both solo pieces. Meyer performed an untitled composition for bass alone, which danced like a Hindemith viola sonata in its legato turns. McBride, for his part, treated us with a solo rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” that was as acrobatic as it was insightful. Although McBride played it all-pizzicato, he too is an adept wielder of the bow and his gloss of “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” was even more heartfelt.

A double-dip into the Miles Davis songbook yielded fresh versions of “Solar” and “All Blues” (the concert’s encore), while another into rural waters came up with a downright orchestral arrangement of Bill Monroe’s “Tennessee Blues” and the frantic virtuosity of Meyer’s aptly titled “Barnyard Disturbance.” The musicians’ free-spirited approach served the authenticity of these tunes and made for an inspiring evening. Like Meyer’s “F.R.B.,” which paid homage to the late, great Ray Brown, their love for each other, for the music and for all who inspired them was the most engaging melody of all.

Click here to read my pre-concert interview with both musicians.

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

ECM @ Winter Jazzfest 2017

For the second year in a row, ECM commanded the stage at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium for Winter Jazzfest in New York City. Whereas 2016’s showcase spanned two nights, this year’s was a one-night event, and featured sets by the Michael Formanek Quartet (with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, and Gerald Cleaver), Jakob Bro’s trio with Thomas Morgan and Joey Baron, two duos (Ravi Coltrane/David Virelles and Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan), and a concluding performance by Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile. Click the concert photo below to read my full report.

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(Nik Bärtsch; photo by Glen DiCrocco)

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.)

Anat Fort review for All About Jazz

My latest review for All About Jazz is of pianist Anat Fort’s superb performance at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, where her trio, along with Italian reedman Gianluigi Trovesi, celebrated the release of her third ECM album, Birdwatching. Click the photo below to read on.

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(Photo credit: Glen DiCrocco)

Live Report: David Rothenberg and Friends at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

On 21 June 2016, clarinetist David Rothenberg, cellist Hank Roberts, accordionist Lucie Vítková, and guitarist Charlie Rauh played a concert at an unlikely time (5 a.m.) with (given the time) a less unlikely orchestra: a dawn chorus of birds at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In the waxing light of a cloud-obscured sunrise, trees vibrated with winged singers: the primary constant among otherwise spontaneous contributions by human accompanists. If the latter’s utterances seemed random and responsive, it was only because the former’s were so ordered and communicative—though if the performance sought anything, it was to ensure these two currents of sound production became as indistinguishable as possible.

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The patter on leaves of a passing shower was its own sort of twittering as Rothenberg and friends shed the skins of their respective training in favor of an unencumbered style of play(ing). As the human quartet eased its way into the soundscape, a catbird joined in from a nearby bough. Though the creature’s body was as hidden as its song was naked, a thread of continuity drew itself between Rothenberg’s reed and that rogue throat, enacting a form of nostalgia that must surely have captured our ancestors long before the technology required to tell their stories was conceivable. Of said technology Rothenberg has been an artful proponent, as proven by his tactful use of an iPad preloaded with birdcalls summonable at will.

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While each musician was in fullest support of the others, Vítková’s microscopy added much to the feel of the entire event. Whether playing the accordion, a string attached to a can, or a hichiriki (Japanese oboe), her colors meshed particularly well with Rothenberg’s. Roberts meanwhile flitted in and out of frame with his sensitive array of pizzicato and arco textures. The arpeggios by which he opened the second of two improvisations were especially moving, pointing as they did back to the magic already around us. This half of the performance was jazzier in flavor, for it manifested the interspecies blues pumping through the heart of it all. Rauh, for his part, was the most painterly of the ensemble, rendering broader scenes into which the other three might dot in their figures and villages. More than anyone, he fed on the visual aspect of the setting, attuned to the sunlight as it gained sway over fading drizzle.

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If music predates us, it also postdates us. It is the proverbial cradle in which our brief existence raises a few melodic cries before returning to eternal slumber. And in the harmony of this experience, at least, one knew that circles of life can and do pop up when least expected, and that such opportunities are to be savored whenever they arise. This music was, therefore, not so much conversation as conservation, a chance to blur the lines between literal and metaphorical flights toward an integrated whole of which those gathered were the smallest particles.

Live Report: Method of Defiance at Roulette (Brooklyn)

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On 20 June 2016, bassist and dark-matter stylist Bill Laswell convened the latest incarnation of his Method of Defiance outfit at the Roulette performance space in Brooklyn to celebrate the Downtown Music Gallery’s 25th anniversary. Joining Laswell were Dr. Israel (beats, vocals), Garrison Hawk (vocals), D.J. Logic (turntable, laptop), Josh Werner (bass, keyboards), Graham Haynes (cornet), and Guy Licata (drums), along with special guest Mike Sopko (guitar). The latter’s avant-leaning tendencies threw fistfuls of sparks at the audience, surpassed in heat only by Hawk’s incendiary spit and Laswell’s embers. Yet behind them was an invisible ninth member whose contributions were palpable throughout—the reflection of some connective spirit that drew everyone into the same line of purpose.

Ever at the core of whatever they attend, Laswell and his bass were a binary force of reckoning. Together they prepped the space with characteristic sagacity. Werner’s electronic detailing gave first indications of landscape, discernible though not yet solid until Licata’s drum ‘n’ bass vibes hit the ground running. His wake left an open wound in the earth, revealing an igneous groove, while Haynes sprouted a tree for every leaf burned by the force of the environmental disruption.

In this, the first of eight songs, innovations and comforts bled themselves in search of hybrid hemoglobin. Israel’s vocals, wrapped in heavy echo, proved that the Dr. was very much in the house when he negotiated crunchy dub textures as might a chameleon revel in a rainbow. And when the other wordsmith took to the stage, showing that hawks are every bit as cunning on the ground as in the air, he tempered flames with descriptions of raw deals and rawer emotions.

Sopko’s sere guitar kept things randomized, and only served to emphasize the importance of every utterance, so that whenever a mouth was opened, so too were listener’s minds to receive its wisdom. Some of the most gripping portions of the set, in fact, found Israel and Hawk involved in deeply semantic transactions, each a firebrand of his own design, sandwiched between gray destruction and lavender rebuilding. All the while, Laswell’s bass undermined the fragile house of convention.

Not all was so apocalyptic, as ambience prevailed along the way. Whether in Werner’s triadic lullabies or the bandleader’s swooping improvisations, such tenderer moments were calls to arms for those without them. During one memorable tune, Logic intertwined griot sampling with Laswell’s harmonic equations while Haynes channeled messages from seemingly nonhuman sources.

At one point, Werner traded keys for bass (even the sun needs to recover beyond the horizon), provoking comparable head nods through a haze of guitar marginalia (Sopko resolving monumental tensions with Buckethead-like release) and tight drumming. And as Israel dropped his champion’s badge in the pond to distort the face of one who needed it not for validation, the risk of it all paid its ultimate dividends through an apparent axiom: A strong core, no matter how distorted the surface surrounding it, compromises for no one.

MOD portraits