May 28, 2007

Herbie Hancock Quartet – Ryman Auditorium 5/25/07

1. Sonrisa
2. Actual Proof
3. Watermelon Man (7 Teens)
4. Stitched Up
5. Virgin Forest
6. Maiden Voyage
7. I Just Called to Say I Love You
8. When Love Comes to Town
9. Cantaloupe Island
10. Chameleon

Herbie Hancock: keyboards, piano
Lionel Loueke: electric guitars, vocal
Nathan East: electric bass, vocal
Vinnie Colaiutia: drums

You’d think from reading this blog that we are the type of people who go out a lot. Ha! In fact, we’re notorious for buying tickets to events and then bagging out at the last minute. Over the past few years, it had gotten to the point where we wouldn’t even pretend that we’d go – might as well just save the money. But, maybe that has changed - certainly working downtown makes it a lot easier to enjoy a night on the town. The bottom line is: art and music make life worth living. So, when we realized on Monday that this concert had not sold out, we decided to go ahead and get tickets - decent seats at that, towards the middle of the balcony.

We’d heard some European FM broadcasts of Herbie’s recent gigs, so we knew what to expect: a cooking band that can both swing the modal jazz and lay down the serious funk, enabling Herbie to explore both his electronic and acoustic instruments. How could we resist? Herbie Hancock is one of my big-time childhood heroes: I adored the Headhunters stuff and, through that, I got into Miles Davis. Well, from then on, my life was forever changed. Yet, I’d never actually seen Herbie in person, so I was excited to get the chance, right here in Nashville, at the fabulous Ryman Auditorium.

Unfortunately, Herbie’s electronic rig was plagued by “gremlins” (as he put it) for the first couple of numbers, but he deftly managed to keep things moving on the piano while his keyboard tech got things working again. I was a little surprised at how chatty Herbie was – it was almost like standup comedy between tunes. He was laugh-out-loud funny! One the one hand, Herbie is the epitome of “cool,” yet his demeanor is soft-spoken, maybe even a little bit geeky. He was altogether charming – and his playing was always superbly elegant and tasteful.

Things really got going with “Watermelon Man,” which was interspersed with Lionel Loueke’s “7 Teens,” a weirdly grooving 17-beat figure. The vocal stuff from Herbie’s last record, Possibilities (Vector 2005), was perhaps a bit dubious, although bassist Nathan East did an admirable job with the songs. Much to my surprise, Herbie’s “re-composition” of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” was actually pretty effective – really! But, no matter what the material, you always could count on Herbie to take a thoughtful and evocative solo every time.

“Virgin Forest” featured a lengthy solo segment by guitarist Lionel Loueke which combined artful electronics with African finger-style guitar playing with percussive mouth-sounds and wordless singing. It was an impressive tour de force that had the audience utterly entranced. I should note that the crowd was enthusiastic yet attentive. During quiet sections, you could hear a pin drop. Nice!

Herbie introduced “Maiden Voyage” by revealing that he wrote the tune when he was 22 years old for a Yardley men’s cologne commercial. (I didn’t know that!) It was subsequently recorded in its definitive form for Blue Note Records in 1965 and has gone on to become an enduring jazz standard. His solo performance here was a radical re-working of the material, beginning with a chorale of synthesized voices which then segued into a delicate and impressionistic piano improvisation that merely hinted around that simple but classic melody. It was stunningly beautiful and perhaps the highlight of the evening for me.

“Chameleon” was the predictable encore, but it was a magnificent, epic version. Herbie started out trading licks with the rest of the band on his strap-on keyboard before heading to the piano for an elaborate, episodic solo that gradually built up to a wildly ecstatic climax. Phenomenal!

Now, it’s true that I’ve never been a huge fan of Vinnie Colaiuta - his overtly virtuosic technique can sometimes be a little overwhelming. Infinite subdivisions of the beat and relentlessly complicated fills can get to be a bit much. But, I think he’s matured as a musician since his time with Frank Zappa (and Joni Mitchell!) way back in the 1980s. He’s still not the most subtle drummer by any means, but he offered sympathetic and inventive support in this context. Certainly everyone on stage seemed to be having a lot of fun and that really came through in the performance.

And it was a very generous performance – two and half hours with no intermission and no “warm-up” band. We left feeling like we’d gotten more than our money’s worth and it was definitely pretty special to see a living legend in the flesh. Herbie said they’d begun making a record, which should be pretty interesting since he has not made a record with his “working band” in a long time. Look for that to come out in October.

It was very satisfying night out.


Best Avant-Jazz Records of the 1990s

Over at Destination Out there’s been a fascinating survey on the “best” avant-jazz records of the 1990s. Lists are always fun, so here’s mine, in chronological order, taken from my own collection:

1. Sun Ra: Purple Night (A&M 75324 2) (1990)
See also: Somewhere Else (Rounder CD 3036) (1990/1993)

2. Cecil Taylor: In Florescence (A&M CD 5286) (1990)

3. Anthony Braxton: Willisau (Quartet) 1991 (hat ART4-61001-4) (1992)
See also: Quartet: Victoriaville (1992) (Victo cd021) (1992); 4 (Ensemble) Compositions 1992 (Black Saint 120124-2) (1993); Quartet (Santa Cruz) 1993 (hat ART 2-6190) (1997)

4. Ornette Coleman: Naked Lunch: Music from the Original Soundtrack (Milan 5614-2) (1992)
See also: Prime Time: Tone Dialing (Harmolodic/Verve 527 483-2) (1995); Sound Museum: Three Women (Harmolodic/Verve 531 657-2) (1996); Sound Museum: Hidden Man (Harmolodic/Verve 531 914-2) (1996); [with Joachim Kuhn]: Colors: Live from Leipzig (Harmolodic/Verve 537 789-2) (1997)

5. Henry Threadgill: Too Much Sugar for a Dime (Axiom 514 258-2) (1993)
See also: Carry the Day (Columbia CK 66995) (1995); Where’s Your Cup? (Columbia CK 67617) (1997); Makin’ a Move (Columbia CK 67214) (1995)

6. Charles Gayle: Touchin’ on Trane (FMP CD48) (1993)
See also: Repent (Knitting Factory Works KFWCD122) (1992); More Live at
the Knitting Factory
(Knitting Factory Works KFWCD137) (1993)

7. James “Blood” Ulmer: Music Revelation Ensemble: In The Name Of… (DIW-885) (1994)
See also: Elec. Jazz (DIW-839; 1990); Knights of Power (DIW-905) (1996); Cross Fire (DIW-927) (1997); Harmolodic Guitar With Strings (DIW-878) (1993)

8. Matthew Shipp Quartet: Critical Mass (2.13.61 CD 003) (1995)
See also: Quartet: Points (Silkheart SHCD 129) (1990); Trio: Circular
(Quinton QTN1) (1990); Duo (with William Parker): Zo (Rise RR-126) (1991); Trio: Prism (Brinkman BRCD058) (1993); Solo: Symbol Systems (No More Records No.1) (1995); Quartet: The Flow of X (2.13.61 CD thi21326.2) (1997); Duo (with Roscoe Mitchell): 2-Z (2.13.61 CD thi21312.2) (1996); Solo: Before the World (FMP CD81) (1997); String” Trio: By the Law of Music (hat ART CD6200) (1997); Duo (with Joe Morris): Thesis (Hatology 506) (1997); Horn Quartet: Strata (Hatology 522) (1997); Trio: The Multiplication Table (Hatology 516) (1998); Duo (with Mat Maneri): Gravitational Systems (Hatology 530) (1998); “String” Trio: Expansion, Power, Release (Hatology 558) (1999)

9. Joe Morris Ensemble: Elsewhere (Homestead HMS233-2) (1996)

10. David S. Ware: Go See the World
(Columbia CK 69138) (1998)
See also: Flight of I (DIW/Columbia CK 52956) (1992); Third Ear Recitation (DIW-870) (1993); Earthquation (DIW-892) (1994); Cryptology (Homestead HMS220-2) (1994); Dao (Homestead HMS230-2) (1995); Godspelized (DIW-916) (1996); Wisdom of Uncertainty (AUM Fidelity AUM001) (1996)

11. William Parker: In Order to Survive: The Peach Orchard (AUM Fidelity 010/11) (1998)
See also: In Order to Survive: Compassion Seizes Bed-Stuy (Homestead HMS231-2) (1996); In Order to Survive: Posium Pendasem (FMP CD105)

12. Cecil Taylor/Dewey Redman/Elvin Jones: Momentum Space (Verve 559 944-2) (1998)

13. Roscoe Mitchell: Nine to Get Ready (ECM 1651) (1999)

14. Sam Rivers Rivbea All-Star Orchestra: Inspiration (RCA 64717-2) (1999) and Culmination (RCA 68311-2) (1999)

15. Evan Parker: Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Drawn Inward (ECM 1693) (1999)
See also: Toward the Margins (ECM 453 514-2) (1997)


May 27, 2007

Nashville Symphony Orchestra – Schermerhorn Center 5/18/07

Puts: “…this noble company” (Processional for Orchestra)
Haydn: Symphony No.103 in E-Flat Major “Drumroll”
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra

Alasdair Neal, conductor

I had been looking forward to hearing the Nashville Symphony Orchestra perform in the new Schermerhorn Center ever since the hall was finally completed last year, and especially after seeing the Phillip Glass Ensemble perform there in February. Oh, how I wanted to experience acoustic music in that space! The Schermerhorn is truly a world-class concert hall by any measure. It amazes me that such a thing could be built in the 21st Century in Nashville, Tennessee (of all places). But, the question remains, what sort of music is going to be performed in this magnificent concert hall?

It was a gorgeous evening for a walk across Broadway; we had plenty of time for a drink in the Romanesque courtyard bar and to explore the building. The gift shop prominently featured a Kenneth Schermerhorn bobble-head that I was mightily tempted to buy, but I managed to resist (this time).

I may be a radical modernist agitator when it comes to music, but I am somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to architecture. I can’t help but love the fact that the Schermerhorn Center appears to have existed for centuries. Much like the beautiful Nashville Public Library a few blocks way, the Schermerhorn effectively utilizes a timeless classicism to ennoble the public’s participation in the city’s cultural life. It’s enough to make a cynic like myself well up with civic pride.

Our seats were in the front row, center of the balcony: an ideal position from which to measure the full acoustic and view the entire orchestra. I was sadly disappointed to see so many empty seats - was it the Bartok? Does 20th Century Music always drive away the audience? Alas, maybe, yes. But, to be fair, there was a lot of other stuff going on downtown that night, and I suspect perhaps many subscribers didn’t want to deal with the traffic and parking hassles.

Interestingly, the New Yorker’s Alex Ross had attended the previous night’s performance. As I’ve previously stated, Alex Ross is an extremely insightful writer on music and it was exciting that such an eminence grise would be in attendance - would his presence spark a particularly inspired performance? Since I wasn’t there, I don’t know. I look forward to his forthcoming review. But the night after was a decidedly mixed bag.

The “Processional” by Kevin Puts was a six-minute trifle. It satisfied itself with pleasant enough sonorities but, as Lizzy remarked: “It sounded like movie music.” That about sums it up.

As for the Haydn… well, yes, I am known for a certain, um, antipathy towards the Mozart/Haydn/Beethoven axis that dominates the crabbed and restricted repertoire, but, I really have been trying to get just over it and appreciate that music for what it is (or was, anyway). I’m determined not to pre-judge a performance just because the music doesn’t conform to my (very particular) tastes and preferences. Sadly, this version of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 did nothing but confirm my worst prejudices. It was a thoroughly listless performance - the music never even attempted to get off the ground. Vague rhythms, shaky intonation, and overdrawn dynamics only served to magnify the overall malaise. Between the third and last movements, I overheard someone behind us remark, “they’re just getting warmed up.” “Let’s hope so,” I thought. At Intermission, I hit the bar and hung out on the terrace overlooking the twinkling lights of downtown Nashville. OK, whatever - this really is a beautiful facility.

Not surprisingly, many people made a hasty exit before that awful 20th Century Music started up. Of course, we had come especially to hear the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, and we were – thankfully - not disappointed. The orchestra seemed to have woken up and guest conductor Alaisdar Neal did his best to stir up some drama and excitement. The woodwinds, brass, and percussion were impeccable, and the Concerto is full of rich orchestration that is clearly a lot of fun for the musicians. Despite the sensuous sound quality, I do have to admit that the strings sounded a little bit diffuse and the trumpets and trombones at full blast easily drowned out the rest of the orchestra. Some people have suggested that the hall is maybe a little too reverberant and “bright,” and this may be true. Nevertheless, when the percussionist gently tapped a triangle, the shimmering sound hovered in a three-dimensional space like a radiant star in twilight. That brief, simple moment was perhaps the highlight of the evening. It was… magical, something that could not possibly be captured on a record. Whatever imbalances I observed are easily correctable.

I am hopeful that once the Nashville Symphony has selected a full-time music director and conductor, the orchestra will begin to fulfill its true potential. In the meantime, next season offers more guest conductors and more middle-of-the-road repertoire. However, a series of concerts dedicated to living composer John Corigliano will be a welcome dose of (post)modernism (November 29-December1 and February 28-March 1) and Yundi Li will be playing the ravishing Ravel Piano Concerto (Feb.7-9). Kudos belong to interim music director (and legendary advocate for contemporary music) Leonard Slatkin for providing a modicum of vision during this exciting (but difficult) period of transition.

I’d also love to see the Schermerhorn become a destination venue for national and international musicians. The hall lends itself to all kinds of ensembles from chamber music to choral/orchestral spectaculars. In fact, violinist Gil Shaham will be playing a solo recital with his sister, pianist Orli Shahm on February 17 and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with Murray Perahia will perform on April 6. More like this, please.


May 20, 2007

NYC (Part 4): Maurizio Pollini – Carnegie Hall, NYC 4/29/07

Chopin: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.45
Chopin: Ballade in F Major/A minor, Op.38
Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op.27
Chopin: Scherzo No.3
Chopin: Polonaise in A-Flat Major, Op.53
Debussy: Etudes, Book II
Boulez: Piano Sonata No.2

Debussy: “La Cathedrale engloutie” from Preludes, Book I
Chopin: Etude in C minor, Op.10, No.12 “Revolutionary”
Chopin: Ballade in G minor, Op.23
Liszt: Etude No.11 in D-flat minor
Chopin: Prelude in D-Flat Major, Op.23, No.15


I lazed around the hotel room on Sunday morning and read the New York Times with some coffee and an egg-n-cheese on a roll. Later, I met up with Lizzy for lunch at the "original" Ray’s Pizza for a couple slices. Then, I jumped in a cab up to 57th street to Carnegie Hall to hear Maurizio Pollini play a matinee recital of “French” piano music.


It turned out that Mr. Pollini would be signing CDs after the performance, so I bought one in the lobby: The Pollini Edition [vol.9](Deutsche Grammophon) which features the Debussy Etudes and the Boulez Sonata No.2. I wasn’t planning to wait in any huge line to have him sign it, but at only $10.00 (cash only!), it was certainly a nice souvenir of the program I was about to hear.

And what a program it was!

I had never been in the “big hall” at Carnegie, and it was everything I had imagined. Even from the very last row of the parquet, the sound was reverberant yet detailed and perfectly clear. The first half was all Chopin, opening with the hushed and delicate C# minor Prelude, Op.45, building up to the fiery Scherzo No. 3 and the grandly heroic Polonaise, Op.53. Pollini’s musicianship is truly breathtaking. Every voice was perfectly placed, even within the densest textures. The virtuosic passagework was effortless and suave, yet never showy or glib. Mr. Pollini’s formidable technique was always conscientiously deployed in service of the music. It’s tempting for me to say that his piano playing was virtually flawless.

But, you know, Chopin is nice and all, but the second half was going to be something else altogether.

The Etudes are not my favorite works for piano by Debussy since as they are essentially didactic and pedagogic by nature - artful calisthenics so to speak. Nevertheless, it was mesmerizing to watch Mr. Pollini execute the hairpin turns of this music with such an easy charm. And, truth to tell, Debussy’s harmonic language is very interesting - even weirdly dissonant in parts. Not so far, really, from Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata.

OK, maybe not. As Mr. Pollini exited the stage, I said to my friend, “Watch them run to the exits - here comes the Boulez!” Sure enough, a dozen or so people within the immediate vicinity hurriedly gathered their things and left. But, surprisingly (at least to me), the vast majority sat expectantly in their seats as the music stand and score was placed upon the piano and a page-turner’s chair was brought on stage.

Of course, it goes without saying that Mr. Pollini played the rest of this program from memory. It is expected – demanded - that pianists perform from memory. No matter how impressive a feat this might be, it is a 19th Century affectation that I have profound problems with: Isn’t it enough that the pianist can actually play these impossibly demanding pieces? To force the pianist play from memory reduces the performance to a circus act – lots of thrills, but what does it have to do with music? Sure, internalizing the music to such a degree should (conceivably) increase the level of musical refinement in any given performance, but the pressure to memorize and regurgitate may also serve to undermine the music itself – not mention that the occasional memory gaffe is all but inevitable. To that end, I had wondered if Mr. Pollini would play the Boulez Sonata from memory – it is, after all, a massive, thorny, and extremely complex work. Frankly, I was pleased to see him bring out the score – all the better, I believe, to deliver a secure performance and further legitimize the presence of the score in modern concert practice.

And it was magnificent.

Mr. Pollini performed this extremely gnarly piece with the same graceful aplomb as the earlier Chopin and Debussy. Further, he managed to clearly delineate the connection to late-Beethovenian pianism that lies at the root of Boulez’s conception. Make no mistake: This is “difficult music” circa. 1949 – atonal/twelve-tone (yet not quite total serialism) and hugely complicated, irregular rhythms. But then, at crucial moments, quasi-tonal configurations arise from the din and (almost) nostalgically recall the push-pull of tonality and the fragile flower of consonance. The sonata seeks to exploit the extreme registers and the innately percussive elements of the piano while also demanding a convincingly elegant – almost cantabile -presentation of themes and counter-themes. Indeed, this music is a supreme challenge for both the performer and the audience. And, so, sure enough, a few more people left between each movement, but those of us that remained (and it was a mostly sold-out hall) were utterly transfixed. When it was all over, the audience erupted into a heartfelt standing ovation. Mr. Pollini himself seemed genuinely moved by the response.

Debussy’s “La Cathedrale engloutie” was a fittingly gentle encore – a reflective and quiet meditation on the piano’s bell-like resonance and a return to the hushed, meditative calm similar to the opening C# minor Prelude by Chopin. As he exited the stage, I thought to myself: That was one of the most spectacular concerts I’ve ever witnessed.

But, then something truly extraordinary happened: While many people promptly left the hall (many of them, I’m sure, getting in line for the CD signing to follow), the majority of the audience continued to clap and loudly cheer. Truly, Maurizio Pollini is a rock star of the classical world. He returned to the stage, bowed again and sat down to play another encore – the flashy “Revolutionary” Etude by Chopin which was greeted with more standing, clapping and cheering… and another curtain call… and another…Well, as you can see, he went on to play a total of five (5) encores – thirty minutes of music! The audience simply did not want him to stop, but the houselights finally – quickly - came up as if to say, “That’s enough. It’s time for Mr. Pollini to sign CDs. We have the contract right here…”

I peeked my head into the signing space only to realize that it would take several hours (at least!) to (maybe) have Mr. Pollini sign my CD, and it would not be worth it (for either of us). These people who had crowded into this room may have taken away his autograph, but I got to see him play five (5!) encores. I do believe that this overwhelming generosity was a reward for those of us who managed to sit through the Boulez – and like it. Mr. Pollini has remarked: “It’s the performers’ absolute responsibility to put new music in their programmes.” It was a blessing to be able to hear this rarely played music performed with such superlative style and passion.

Allan Kozinn’s review of this concert appeared in the New York Times on May 1, 2007.


Standing outside the hall, I noticed a middle-aged (but not quite matronly) woman take what looked like a skateboard out of her bag. She quickly unfolded it into a little two-wheeled scooter. I said to my friend, “That looks like a pretty good way to get around town.” She looked up at me and said, “Oh, it is!” and took off down 57th Street. A classic New York City moment.

I met up with Lizzy back at the hotel and, after a stroll through Washington Square Park, we headed up to 14th Street and 7th Avenue to Gavroche for one last fine-dining-in-New York experience. Gavroche may be a little funky and it may be a little out of the way, but it was fabulous. We started out by sharing a hefty terrine of steamed mussels in a tangy tomato, olives, and garlic sauce. My rack of lamb was superb and Lizzy enjoyed the succulent fish special. The dishes were artfully prepared yet hearty and comforting and the service was attentive yet unhurried and relaxed. We would definitely recommend Gavroche to anyone who loves traditional French cuisine without a lot of fuss.

While we were savoring a glass of porto, I noticed two men enter the restaurant wearing enormous cowboy hats. Could they be some more visitors from Nashville? No! - for as we were leaving, I could overhear them talking animatedly in French. How interesting! Apparently, we had enjoyed not only a very delicious, but truly authentic, French meal. Magnifique!

Now that I had finally started to get used to the congestion and manic pace of New York City, it was – alas - time to leave. The next morning, we headed to the airport and back to our quiet cabin in the woods. It was more than a little sad to leave such an amazing city, but we were also glad to be home. As I remarked previously, I really have become a “country mouse.” Still, it’s nice to know that New York is just a plane-ride away…maybe we’ll go back again this time next year.


May 12, 2007

NYC (Part 3): Records & Books

Saturday was mostly sunny and quite warm - an excellent day to walk around and shop.

You can get anything you want in New York City. What do I want? Records. And books. Given what’s available on 5th Avenue, I actually have pretty modest desires. And I had been saving my pennies since Christmas and was looking forward to doing some treasure hunting in The City.

After another way-too-tasty breakfast at the Waverly, I walked up to 23rd Street to Academy Records, which specializes in classical music. It was jam-packed with mostly used CDs, sensibly organized by historical time-period (with opera its own thing altogether). Actually, they had a “jazz” and “rock” section as well, but it was as skimpy and as marginalized as the “classical” section would be in any other record store. I thought that was pretty amusing. The “pre-classical” section offered many temptations, but I kept thinking about all that stuff that awaited me at Downtown Music Gallery. I spent quite a bit of time prowling the racks, but I left empty handed. I had to get back to Downtown.

I stopped by the hotel to ditch my jacket (like I said, it was warm) and headed down to the Bowery. Spring had sprung in Washington Square Park which was glowing with flowering trees, tulips, and new green leaves. People were out enjoying the weather, jazz combos wailed for coins, and the chess players were three deep. There’s nothing like Washington Square Park for a taste of what makes NYC such an amazing place. I sat on a bench and took in the scene for a bit, but I was on a mission. I had to get back to Downtown.

If you’re into the kind of “weird” music I am, Downtown Music Gallery is truly the most comprehensive record store in the world. Every in-print CD by Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Derek Bailey, Sun Ra – you name it, it’s there - every in-print CD from such labels as Black Saint/Soul Note, Hat Art, Hopscotch, etc. and used CDs and a bunch of somewhat dodgy “archive” (wink) CDRs of way out of print avant-jazz LPs. Whew! - Oh and racks of vinyl that I couldn’t even bring myself to browse, not wanting to have to deal with safely transporting LPs on the plane. . .I spent a good couple hours examining the selection. OK, I admit it – I am a record junkie.

So, after seeing Taylor Ho Bynum the night before, I had already decided that I needed to pick up Anthony Braxton 12(+1)tet: 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 (Firehouse 12). Yep - 9 CDs and 1 DVD documenting every set of his historic 4-night run at the Iridium in Times Square. I’ve barely been able to scratch the surface of this thing, but I can say that it is superbly recorded and a summation of whatever it is that Braxton’s up to with this “Ghost Trance Music” thing. It’s very easy to dismiss Braxton and say he’s crazy, but he may also be America’s greatest living composer. I managed to snag a copy signed by Mr. Braxton himself for only $120.00, a bargain, when you get right down to it. I also picked up Anthony Braxton Sextet: (Victoriaville) 2005 (Victo) for a taste of the Sextet.

My friend Stan sent me an email a while ago saying that the most exciting new music he’d heard recently was by Helmut Lachenmann. He described it “as if Boulez and Crumb had a lovechild.” That was certainly enough to pique my interest. Downtown had nearly a dozen CDs to choose from and, after examining each one, I decided to buy Allegro Sostenuto/Serynade (Kairos), Kontrakadenz/Klangschatten – mein Saitenspiel/Fassade (Kairos), NUN/Notturno (Musik fur Julia) (Kairos), and Schwankungen am Ram (ECM). Now that I’ve had a chance to hear this music, I’d have to say Stan’s description is right on. The ECM recording of orchestral music is particularly, um, cosmic.

After a leisurely lunch at the North Square Restaurant, I headed over to Broadway to meet Scott at the Strand Bookstore. I browsed the music section, but it was literally dizzying trying to scan the shelves. We decided to head down to St. Mark's Bookshop for a more pleasant bookstore experience. And what a great bookstore! I headed straight for the “cultural studies” section and there he was: almost two shelves of Adorno! Here’s one I didn’t even know about: Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction (Polity) in a 2006 translation – how interesting! I also picked up Adorno’s Sound Figures (Stanford) and Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minnesota). This will keep me busy for a while. One of the (few) things I miss about living in Boston is the variety of quality independent bookstores. Sure, it’s convenient to buy books on Amazon, but it’s nothing like browsing a great bookstore (or record store for that matter).

Later, I met up with Liz and her brother Dave and his fiancé, Michiko for an authentic southern Indian dinner at Saravanaas (26th & Lexington). It was definitely pretty exotic – I have no idea what most of it was, but my Thalis were delicious. It was great to see Dave, whom I hadn’t seen in many years, and he and Michiko seem very happy.

But all the walking around had done a number on my back, so Lizzy and I went back to the hotel and watched dumb movies and fell asleep. It was nice. Yep - Saturday night in New York City and we go to bed early! I’m Ok with that. It had been a great day.


May 6, 2007

NYC (Part 2): Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet – Jazz Gallery, NYC 4/27/07

Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet
Jessica Pavone: viola, electric bass
Loren Kiyoshi Dempster: violoncello
Mary Halvorson: electric guitar
Evan O’Reilly: electric guitar
Tomas Fujiwara: drums


Friday morning was cold and rainy. Ah, springtime on the east coast! Tennessee’s storms had finally made their way up to Manhattan and brought with them flash floods and general dreariness. Even so, after the previous evening’s marathon walk, the chilly, damp weather made it all the more appealing to sleep in a little bit - so we did.

After a hearty brunch at the classic, old-style Waverly Restaurant on 6th Avenue, we headed back up town to the Museum of Modern Art where I was shocked to find a line down the block to get in on this miserably rainy Friday afternoon. But, again, that awesome New York efficiency managed to move us through the line with amazing speed. While it is gratifying to see such huge crowds turn out for high-modernism, it was not a very comfortable experience for looking at art. One could not even get close to any of the Van Goghs, Picassos, or Miros. And, what is up with the need to take digital photos of every damn painting? I swear, many people were more concerned with “collecting” these crummy little images than actually looking at the art, which is, you know, right there and only right there. Very strange.

Even so, the recently enlarged museum allows for a much more thorough examination of the collection (even if some of my favorite paintings were not on display). Several first-rate Rothkos and an entire room of Jackson Pollocks were particularly inspiring. A small room beside the jam-packed Monet “Waterlillies” gallery was surprisingly empty, and contained a number of Duchamps and Malevich masterpieces that could be quietly and intently contemplated. Duchamps’ bicycle wheel and shovel still retain the power to shock and alienate the viewer – no wonder the gallery was mostly empty! Elsewhere, I was struck by a series of prints by Barnett Newman which gave me a better appreciation for this artist who has consistently left me cold. Their modest size and serial presentation, combined with the rich pigments of the printer’s ink, made his “zip” motifs much more compelling to me than his “heroic” and massively oversized canvases. It’s always refreshing to have my negative opinions overthrown and I am sure that I will now see his work in a new and more favorable light.

After making our way through most of the permanent collection, the overwhelming amount of artwork and the dense crowds had thoroughly taken its toll on both of us. We were exhausted. And thirsty. It was still spitting outside, so we ducked into the Heartland Brewery for a refreshing microbrew (named “Grateful Red” ha ha) and some decent fried calamari. After a series of phone calls, we headed back down to the Village to meet my friend, Scott, for a tasty dinner at Gobo, a very fine vegetarian/vegan restaurant on 6th Avenue.

By the time we finished dinner, the rain had finally let up and Lizzy headed off to her program at the Shambhala Center, and Scott and I headed across Washington Square Park to one of the world’s finest record stores, Downtown Music Gallery. I chatted briefly with co-owner Bruce about the old days of UYA and the latest activities of bassist/producer Bill Laswell and he helpfully scrounged me up a copy of David Tudor : Piano Music on Editions RZ which was the one new CD that I absolutely wanted to pick up while I was in The City. I browsed a bit, but while I could (and later did) spend hours gathering a huge pile of CDs to buy, it seemed a little rude to leave Scott hanging like that. Besides, we were on our way further downtown to hear some jazz, and I didn’t want to lug a bunch of stuff with me. I knew I would have plenty of time on Saturday to go shopping. After a quick espresso on 2nd Avenue, we jumped in a cab down to the Jazz Gallery.


Taylor Ho Bynum has made a name for himself as a decade-long collaborator with Anthony Braxton and has assembled a fascinating sextet for his new CD on his own Firehouse 12 label, The Middle Picture. This performance at the Jazz Gallery served as a CD release party, so I bought a copy (for a mere $10) from Mr. Bynum himself, who was genuinely warm and down-to-earth. We briefly discussed Braxton’s “Ghost Trance Music” (and my difficulty with its rhythmic sensibility) and he graciously thanked me for buying his CD and attending the performance. Excuse me for bringing it up once more, but the myth of the mean, rude New Yorker was again shown to be a vicious lie.

Drawing largely from the compositions featured on The Middle Picture, the sextet presented an inspired set of interestingly modernist jazz. Cellist Loren Kiyoshi Dempster replaced reedist Matt Bauer for this performance and his obvious classical training added to the “chamber music” quality of the evening, especially in combination with Jessica Pavone’s viola. Bynum’s tenure with Anthony Braxton has certainly influenced his compositional and performance approach: complex linear figures are collaged and folded around improvisational segments for solos, duos and trios. This is extremely abstract stuff, but the ensemble seemed right at home with the material and everyone offered up sympathetic and thoughtful improvisations.

Mary Halvorson particularly impressed me. She played a big ole Gretsch hollowbody electric guitar and mostly stuck to a very straight, very idiomatic Jim Hall-style jazz guitar sound, but her note choices and rhythms were always extremely interesting. But then she would occasionally introduce subtle electronic devices such as volume pedal, digital delay, whammy-pedal, or a deliberately scratchy volume pot to create blurring effects that were delightfully novel and thoroughly expressive. Furthermore, Ms. Halverson demonstrated a mastery of extended techniques, from complex finger-picking to Derek Bailey-esque squeaks, scrapes and plunks. Just when I thought nothing new could be done with an electric guitar, someone like Ms. Halverson comes along to show me the way. Wow.

Taylor Ho Bynum himself is perhaps the most inventive trumpeter (OK, cornettist) since Lester Bowie. Not that he sounds like Lester Bowie, but he approaches the instrument in a way that completely transcends the clichéd, while still embracing the instrument’s entire legacy. Bynum can go from low-frequency growls to high-intensity shrieks in a measure, but he can also play fluently with a warm-toned, vibrato-less - almost Milesian - sound. He wielded an arsenal of mutes (including an old felt hat!) that extended his textural range even further. While he was clearly the leader of the group, he generously shared the spotlight with every other member of the ensemble.

I wish we could have stayed for the second set, since it seemed like the ensemble was just starting to really gel, but Scott had a train to catch, and I was pretty tired myself.

I highly recommend The Middle Picture; listening to it brings back this remarkable set in my mind’s ear. And keep your eye on Mr. Bynum - and Ms. Halverson! – I think they represent a positive and creatively fruitful future for jazz in the 21st Century.


May 5, 2007

NYC (Part 1): Academy of Ancient Music – Zankel Hall, NYC 4/26/07

Handel: Concerto Gross in B-Flat Major, Op. 3, No.2
Handel: Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op.3, No.6
Telemann: Water Music Suite, “Hamburger Ebb und Fluth” (1723)
Water Music Suite in G Major, HWV350
Telemann: Concerto in E minor for Flute and Recorder, TWV52:e1
Concerto Grosso in B-Flat Major, Op.3, No.1

Richard Egarr: harpsichord, director


It was a decidedly stressful drive to the airport. Strong thunderstorms had rolled through middle Tennessee in the night and morning traffic was snarled all over due to the inevitable numerous accidents. Thankfully, we made our flight and arrived in Newark, NJ a little bit early. It used to be a huge pain to get from Newark to Manhattan, but the AirTrain to Penn Station was easy and fast. The lengthy queue at the taxi-stand in front of Madison Square Garden was brutally efficient in that way you can only experience in New York City. Within a mere minute or two, we were barreling our way down 7th Avenue to Greenwich Village. The cabdriver was super-friendly – he proudly showed us photographs of his children and grandchildren. (Who says people in New York are rude? That is a myth!) We were a bit early for check-in at The Washington Square Hotel, but the concierge was (also) super-friendly and he helpfully stowed our luggage and animatedly suggested places to obtain the essentials, such as coffee, grapefruit, and jazz.

We took a walk up 6th Avenue and it was more than a little overwhelming to me just how many freaking people were clogging the sidewalks at 2:00 PM on a Thursday afternoon. New York is an intense place - to say the least! It took me a little getting used to. I guess I really am a “country mouse” these days.

Back at the hotel, we checked in, unpacked, and changed into our finery for a Big Night in The City. We cabbed back uptown for our 5:00 PM reservation at The Modern, the restaurant located at the recently enlarged Museum of Modern Art. We ate in the bar area, which served an abbreviated menu of appetizer and ½-size portions from the dinner menu. I enjoyed a mélange of artfully prepared dishes such as raw oysters with caviar, leeks and cider, a pair of decadently enormous grilled Diver scallops with Chianti glazed beets, toasted almonds, and cumin-sumac butter, followed up with spice-crusted Colorado lamb loin with shank and machego cheese gratin and pomegranate reduction. Lizzy had a mixed green salad with Coach Farm’s triple crème goat cheese, toasted pumpkin seeds and apple cider vinegar followed by swordfish with eggplant caviar and teardrop tomato salad. It was first class all the way, and the people-watching was definitely a blast. After aperitifs and espresso, we leisurely walked a couple blocks up to Zankel Hall, which is part of the Carnegie Hall complex.


The Academy of Ancient Music is the premiere early music ensemble and I own and dearly love many of their recordings so I was very excited to have an opportunity to see them perform live on those beautifully “primitive” period instruments. But, we were ushered to our seats only to find an elderly gentleman occupying one of the seats, quietly working the New York Times crossword puzzle. Turns out he has a subscription ticket – this is his seat! Oh no! A computer snafu! Fortunately, the staff acted like this was not the first time duplicate tickets had been sold over the internet. The kindly gentleman insisted that the ushers immediately find seats “for this nice young couple” and so they did, just across the auditorium.

I was amazed that there were any empty seats in the hall since Zankel Hall holds barely 600 people. The acoustic is maybe a bit too dry and clinical for my taste, but it is an extremely intimate setting to hear baroque orchestral music. More problematic is the fact that its location deep below street level allows for a substantial amount of subway noise to enter the hall, sometimes quite distractingly. Nevertheless, the sound of the woody oboes, honking bassoon, and breathy recorders and flutes were all finely detailed while the strings and continuo were well balanced and crystal clear.

And what fun it was to watch! These musicians are definitely not the stereotypically musty and stodgy performers you might expect, despite their obvious scholasticism. They are clearly way into it: their body language, watchful interaction, and synchronistic ensemble playing indicate that the group operates more like a “band” than what you might normally think of as an “orchestra.” This band-like sensibility enables this so-called “ancient music” to really come alive – to rock. For example, during the Handel Op.3, No.6 , Richard Egarr and William Carter improvised a lovely harpsichord and theorbo duet to supply the “missing” second movement. The program offered many wonderful coloristic effects, as the orchestra split into smaller “concertinos” such as flutes and bassoon, violin and oboes, cello and violins, etc. while Telemann’s Concerto for Flute and Recorder showcased the astonishing virtuosity of Rachel Brown and Rachel Beckett. In all, it was a thoroughly captivating performance.

The Academy of Ancient Music is playing a brief U.S. tour in support of their new CD/SACD of the entire Handel Op.3 on Harmonia Mundi. Anne Midgette’s review of this concert appeared in The New York Times on April 28.


Energized by the fantastic music, Lizzy and I decided to walk for a while down through the neon frenzy of Times Square. However, it was such a nice night, that we wound up walking all the way back to the hotel – about fifty blocks! It took us right about an hour. There was a time that I remember well when we would have been seriously ill-advised to take such a walk, but New York has changed. Heck, I remember when Times Square was a place to scrupulously avoid. Now it is a Broadway theme park. So it goes, I suppose.