Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
Lotte Anker + Sylvie Courvoisier + Ikue Mori
It’s hard to define what makes for successful improvised music, for the most successful music in the genre—witness this CD-- creates fresh definitions for the terms of its success. We might begin to listen to this through the window of its title, with the suggestions of both the strange and the close encounter, and the track titles’ invocations of birds. It takes its title from sculptor Martin Puryear's “Alien Huddle,” a large wooden sculpture that consists of three parts: a large sphere, a much smaller hemisphere and a still smaller quarter of a sphere. The sculpture had impressed all three musicians when it was exhibited at MOMA and it’s easy to see how their own aesthetics would find resonance in its deftly crafted, unpainted wooden strips as well as the unfinished marks left by the staples used during its construction. Like Puryear’s sculpture, this music has three parts, but the relationships between scale and distance and significance keeps changing.
What one often hears here, though, is not the “huddle” but the almost quantifiable distance between the three musicians—a sense of spaciousness that’s apparent whether the music is relatively dense and brusque (“Woodpecker Peeks”) or eerily spacious (“Morning Dove”). While the sounds of birds arise often enough to sound deliberate, even without the consistently avian titles, they’re birds in odd spaces, at times, apparently singing in Mori’s electronics, at others singing just outside the imagined window of her laboratory.
While the trio of Anker’s saxophones (she plays soprano, alto and tenor here), Courvoisier’s often prepared piano and Mori’s electronics might seem unusual, the three immediately adapt certain practices that can suggest it’s the most normal grouping in the world. Mori plays a lot of electronic “percussion,” Just as Courvoisier plays a lot of acoustic percussion inside the piano, and it’s surprising how often this can sound like a sax, piano, drums trio, as in the almost straight-ahead free jazz of “Night Owl.” It can also be tense and relaxed, sometimes, oddly, at the same time, and it’s not unusual for the music to include both expressionist and non-expressionist positions simultaneously. Time gets divided up in fresh ways, sometimes between people who are listening to time as closely as they’re listening to their partners. “Dancing Rooster Comp,” for example, is a ragged field in which the players either directly echo or apparently ignore what’s happening around them.
While I’ve heard Courvoisier and Mori together in two groups previously (Courvoisier’s Lonelyville and the trio Mephista with Susie Ibarra), this particular grouping seems the most successful of the three, Anker’s linear clarity creating a special spaciousness for the two to explore.
Jorge Lima Barreto
For over two decades the Portuguese pianist Barreto has employed free improv, electroacoustic settings, multimedia constructs, theatrical and video installations to escape conventional performance practice as one-half of the duo Telectu with guitarist/electronicist Victor Rua. This aesthetic carries over into what is ostensibly a solo piano recital (divided between two extended live 2005 improvisations), albeit enhanced by short-wave radio and ambient recordings from João Marques Carrilho. Metaphorically, the piano represents real-time, internal space (the body of the piano and the mind of the pianist), while Carrilho’s contribution symbolizes the indeterminate external environment it inhabits. In “Zul,” Barreto’s grand gestures are drawn from the extremes of piano repertoire, slipping in and out of tonal references – with chord clusters and repeated phrases suggesting Prokofiev or, in more lyrical passages, Rachmaninoff, and the alternately hammered and feathery dynamics of a Schlippenbach – as radio waves elicit fugitive echoing voices and whistling timbres. Atop a chorus of birds, insects, and possibly amphibians in “Zelub,” the piano follows a compact, thematic, linear progression interrupted only by rumbling bass excursions and inside-the-piano metallic clatter. The self-imposed extramusical barriers notwithstanding, it’s Barreto’s spontaneous, large-scale compositional coherency that impresses most.
Carla Bley and her Remarkable Big Band
On Appearing Nightly, Carla Bley’s conceptual humor and compositions are all of a piece. She can sometimes let her sense of fun overwhelm, even trivialize, her other virtues as a composer, but here the mischief enlivens a music that’s as elegant and colorfully orchestrated as it is entertaining. An affectionately jokey homage to nightclubs of the 1950s, in which Bley had a brief and not too successful career as a cocktail pianist, most of music weaves direct quotes from and close paraphrases of standards and conventional big band devices into Bley’s original melodies and arrangements. The centerpiece is “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid,” a 25-minute suite commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival. Like Monk or Horace Silver, Bley is a composer whose apparent simplicity is a measure of her sophistication. Each phrase of the suite’s opening section, “40 On/20 Off,” is pithy and memorable, each has its proper place in the tune, and the composition’s construction has a dramatic inevitability that draws the listener along. Her orchestration of “Last Call,” scoring flutes as frosting on dark layers of low brass and saxophones, or pitting brass and reeds against one another in punctuating riffs, is colorful and varied. Quotes from standards and Tin Pan Alley composers are cleverly integrated and not overdone. “Someone to Watch” makes oblique references to Gershwin, quoting one of his songs only at its climax. “Awful Coffee” quotes more standards than a Dexter Gordon solo — and all the quotes are about food—but they flash by at pace that doesn’t impede the composition’s brisk tempo. The soloists, including Lew Soloff, Gary Valente, Wolfgang Pushnig, and Andrew Shepard, are all in tune with the spirit of the music — brainy and fun, high spirited and well crafted. It’s refreshing to be amused and entertained without feeling like your intelligence is being insulted.
Uri Caine Ensemble
On his latest Winter & Winter CD, pianist-composer Uri Caine sets himself a different challenge from his previous reimaginings of European art music. Earlier albums such as Urlicht/Primal Light, his Mahler project, or Uri Caine Plays Mozart, took favorite passages from several of a composer’s major works and organized them into suites. On others, Caine took single instrumental works such Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and recast them. With The Othello Syndrome, a deconstruction of Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi’s operatic retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Caine works with plot and character for the first time. At roughly half the length of the opera, this musical-theatrical work condenses and omits much. It suggests rather than tells the story of the Venetian Moor deceived by a spiteful underling, Iago, into murdering his wife, Desdemona. But Caine finds ingenious methods of preserving the essentials of the story and Verdi’s music and—through a variety of techniques—sometimes undermines them. In some ways this is familiar territory for Caine, but in significant ways it’s an important step forward toward a more ambitious fusion of avant-garde improvised music and drama. The album is exciting as much for what it delivers as what it promises. This is not something one can usually say about a musician in mid-career who has already given us so much accomplished music.
Caine uses a common enough post-modernist theater practice of casting more than one person in a part to brilliant effect. The dual castings refract the characters from different perspectives and distance listener and performer from the subject at hand, both supporting and undercutting received interpretations of the characters. Caine has scored pieces for more that one vocalist before, on Love Fugue, his setting of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and Dark Flame, based on Mahler songs, but not with the same dramatic intent found here and not with as much psychological depth. Desdemona is sung primarily by Swedish jazz vocalist Josefine Lindstrand. However, poet Julie Patton contributes spoken/rapped text to the “Love Duet.” In one of Caine’s most curiously moving decisions, Desdemona has mainly words, with little music to sing during the duet, and Othello has only music, no words. Later, Lindstrand wordless singing on “Desdemona’s Lament” and “Willow Song/Ave Maria” conveys the loneliness, vulnerability, and heartache of Othello’s doomed wife more than words could. Lindstrand’s decidedly unoperatic, folk-singer voice lends special pathos to some of Verdi’s most devastating music. Italian avant garde theater actor Marco Paolini and poet Sadiq Bey play Iago. On “Iago’s Credo” Paolini speaks-sings his lines in the threatening rasp and amoral gusto of a Weill-Brecht gangster, while Bey declaims an original rap interpreting the villian’s nihilistic world view in contemporary terms. If the work has a flaw it’s that Iago’s deceitful plot against Othello isn’t explained. It’s suggested in the instrumental music and the horrifying consequences are chillingly sung by the cast. But unless you already know the story (and most listeners will) the motive for the murder is never clear.
By far Caine’s greatest casting coup is tapping obscure Philly soul legend Bunny Sigler to play Othello. Caine was a major contributor to clarinetist Don Byron’s 2000 Blue Note release, A Fine Line, in the liner notes to which Byron observes that the art of aria- and lieder-composing has migrated from the classical realm to African-influenced popular music. Caine has taken this observation to heart. Sigler’s enormous and versatile voice provides a genuine gospel-blues-soul jolt to the music; he’s the real thing. He sings “She’s the Only One I Love” with a sincerity and warmth that Stevie Wonder might envy. And “Am I a Fool?”, complete with classic soul riffs arranged by trumpeter Ralph Alessi, works up a virile sexual anguish worthy of Marvin Gaye. Sigler can be eloquent without singing a word, as he is in his tender performance on the love duet, and in his agonized howls of despair and regret before he kills himself at the conclusion. On “Murder” and “Othello’s Confession,” poet Bey’s words are a chilling reflection of the rage and wounded manhood storming through Othello on the verge of his merciless crime.
By calling his work The Othello Syndrome, rather than preserved the original title, Caine has excused himself from strict adherence to the narrative and turned the story into a means of exploring the issues of treachery, machismo, jealousy, rage, innocence, race, and gender. Free to select among the dramatic scenes, Caine is also free to use only the music from the opera that suits his purposes. As mentioned, he preserved many of the opera’s highlights. The love duet that closes Act I, Iago’s nihilistic Credo from the beginning of Act II, Desdemona’s “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” from the final act all make their way into Caine’s piece.
Some of Caine’s instrumental condensations of Verdi are both startling and ingenious. In the opening “Othello’s Victory,” the sampling and electronics of Stefano Bassanese and Bruno Fabrizio Sorba suggest the terrible power of the storm at sea that Othello survives on his victorious return from war. The martial pageantry of his return is humorously twitted in the music by some Queen-level bombast from guitarist Nguyen Le. On “The Lion of Venice,” electronics and Alessi’s muted trumpet portray the insidious workings of jealousy in Othello’s mind, and Iago’s contemptuous remarks about Othello fading glory, made over the unconscious Moor, are suggested by faint samples of military music. Some of Caine’s most energized and dancing improvising on record is heard on “Othello’s Victory” and the giddy “Drinking Song.”
Duke Ellington once said that the blues ain’t nothing but the sound of a man and a woman going steady. And if there was ever a story drenching in the blues feeling, it’s certainly Othello. Verdi would undoubtedly be horrified at the thought of such “vulgar” music as jazz and blues (and funk and soul and hip-hop) being imposed on his masterpiece. But Caine is never gratuitous when he applies “low” culture to “high” culture. The erasure of high and low distinctions and the convergence of genres always illuminate his source materials in new ways. The Othello Syndrome is an entertainment, a thought-provoking theater, a spectacle in the grand opera tradition, if not the form.
Since launching his psi label in 2001, Evan Parker has been steadily documenting his activities with the Appleby Jazz Festival, an annual event in the Cumbria district of Northern England. Launched by Neil Ferber in 1989, the festival has regularly been a showcase for British modern jazz. Long a part of the festival, Parker began the special “Free Zone” series in 1998, programming an annual collocation of improvisers in a “redundant” church provided by owners Jean and Phil Morsman. There’s something bittersweet about the present release in that Ferber mothballed the festival for 2008, mired down by bad weather in 2007 and a lack of reliable support from sponsors, broadcasters and government funding agencies.
While Parker’s previous Free Zone Appleby have consisted of mid-size improvising ensembles and
Each improvisation is named for a Phil Morsman painting, entitled “Shield (Blue),” that hung in the performance space. It’s a tall and very narrow abstract with blues predominating and a series of lines descending freely downward. According to Parker’s brief note, “Its apparent theme of rain was particularly appropriate,” and it’s appropriate to the music as well, which is often liquid in its flowing interactive detail, the sustained sounds of Angeli’s Sardinian guitar often backgrounding and framing the lines of the reeds. The present grouping benefits from both familiarity (Parker and Rothenberg have previously issued duet recordings—the documentation continues with the cascading lines of “ Shield (Blue) Duo Two”) and novelty, with Angeli recording with the others for the first time. Within these dialogues there’s substantial variety as well as concentrated listening. When Parker and Rothenberg take up their tenor and alto saxophones respectively for “Trio 4” there’s a give-and-take and an underlying rhythmic momentum that feels like they might launch into a Basie riff, while Angeli bows his way into the realm of the winds in “Trio 6.”
It’s a well developed set of improvisations by three fine performers, but more than that, there’s a sense of the exploration and camaraderie of the grouping and the warmth and depth of the occasion.