String Theory: VIDA Guitar Quartet Live at Cornell

VIDA portrait

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.)

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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)

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.

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Kurt Riley: The Man Who Fell to Earth

Music and life start the same way: as a seed germinating until it is ready for the world. Many have beaten objects for want of rhythm; others have extended their bodies through instrumental prostheses in deference to melody. But the most primal search of the modern age is that of a voice for an amplifier. Ithaca, New York-based singer Kurt Riley is one such seeker, holding a microphone like a newborn whose umbilical cord twirls back into the electric womb where his second album Kismet has been incubating for over a year.

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A student among a band of students, Kurt has balanced his academic life at Cornell University with a musical one on another planet, from which his sonic gatherings at last fell into place during his premiere performance on April 29, 2016.

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Teaming up with the glam rocker on this interstellar ride were drummer Olivia Dawd, bassist Charlie Fraioli, guitarists David Dillon and Sam Packer, keyboardist Ruth Xing, saxophonist John Mason, and backing vocalist Kristina Camille Sims. The latter added dialectical undercurrents to Riley’s over, balancing dichotomies not only of gender but also temporality and location in the grander context of his outreach.

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The band played the entire album from front to back, opening with the instrumental “Eternity,” a synth-heavy blush that plowed through stardust in a procession of songs without words. Wavering before a backdrop of endless galaxy, Kurt and his musicians prepared their earthly transmission with steady hands and fibrillating hearts. Not only was it a portal of insight into the emotional story about to unfold, but also a foreshadowing of hope: a touch of rain amid the brimstone to ease the pain of progress. More importantly, it lent sanctity to the venue, allowing us to forget we were sitting in nothing more than a university auditorium. Between the retro arpeggio, which flushed the audience of its insecurities in a space normally reserved for less intimate instruction, and the slack guitar floating above it all, a cosmos waited to unleash its primal scream.

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In their rendition of “Eye of Ra,” the album’s first proper song (at least on human terms), Kurt and his astronauts stared into the face of something sinister and acknowledged lack of escape from that which knows us without sight. Hanging on to a kingdom by its lowest rungs, a realm where hardship is a prerequisite for the course of life, they nevertheless cradled this dire circumstance for what it was: a baseline of realism that allows lowly citizens to remember, in the end, just how far they’ve come beneath untouchable authority.

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Like motivations flowed through the follow-up song, “Engines Are Go!” Here the narrative voice was youthful, almost naïve in its gradation from verse to chorus. Kurt pushed these images through the mesh of experience until they were unrecognizable as their former selves. This road trip through the unrequited jungle gave over to “Theft of Fire.” The first incision of an even more romantic surgery, it was a turning of tidal expectations from doom to failure, the key difference being that the latter involves a choice.

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The first single off Kismet, “Hush Hush Hush,” provided the most classic sound. Its pianistic backbone flexed to the beat of a retroactive metropolis in anticipation of biting its own tail. As the ballade du jour, it was a singular passage of reflection, projected through a darkly loving lens of yearning. All of which fed into the first push of “Domino,” sending us all through a cavity of falling rocks.

The circularity of “As We Know It” came about through words of material destruction. “Humanity: Why so in love with the end of things?” Kurt sang, blowing his brains out through a harmonica at the end like a catharsis beyond false semantic promises. It was also a turning point in the program, which paled from black to red as the contours of “Whore” came into focus. For this, Kurt was joined by local rapper Asanté Quintana, whose delivery rose like gorge mist through safety netting.

Asanté

This sea change was further evident in “God’s Back in Action,” a piece of soul for the lonely sharpened to an edge of comfort. It was the very definition of the Kurt Riley experience, which behind the weathered leather and mascara teardrops cradled a motivation of care. As too in the all-reaching “Universe” especially, a Queen-like danse macabre for the soul, true love was never far behind.

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And in “Human Race,” which sent balloons flying throughout the auditorium, Kurt pulled that hope into the present. A self-imagining broken into heated breath…

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…but nowhere more so than in “Burn It Up,” which gave that hope a vessel in which to soar.

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And with that benediction, closed like a fist around slippery assurances, Kurt and his mortal cohort closed up the castle, swept the blood and sweat under the carpet, and tread out into the galactic night with new followers in tow.

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Toward the end of his life, David Bowie once characterized himself as a man lost in time, but Kurt is one who is just beginning to find himself in it. Should you wish to know more about his time on Earth, which is sure to breed noteworthy developments, click the album cover below.

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See you on the other side.

(Concert photos: Yours Truly)