Category: Tracks

Well Behaved Fish

Steve Grismore, guitar/guitar synth; Paul Seca, saxes/flute/wind controller; Anthony Cox, bass; Marc Gratama, drum/synth drums/percussion; Brent Sandy, trumpet

I was kind of shocked when I put this CD on. What decade is this? From the synthy sound of things, I’d guess it was the late ’80s. Wrong. There was no shift in the space-time continuum, it’s just the Grismore/Scea Group’s new album Well Behaved Fish. Whether or not we’re ready for a revival of guitar synths, wind controllers, and MIDI drum pads, here it is. I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later. The retro sound adds a bit of quirkiness to the group’s jazz fusion grooves. I never thought I’d say it, but it’s actually kind of refreshing to hear those TR-808 drum sounds again.


Fear and Trembling

On this disc of Mehldau originals (and the last record he’ll make with this particular trio), the pianist’s longstanding partners in crime—bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy—work their way through a solid nine-track set. There’s less flash than when Mehldau lets loose on a standard, but playing closer to the chest opens up other avenues of exploration. The three-man team resists the urge to all pile on too heavily at once, and so whether the line is dreamy or playful, there’s room for everyone to breathe—including the listener. Though Mehldau’s liner notes for the disc—and exegesis of sorts on the “how”s and “why”s of jazz composition—run to some 22 pages, the music itself is not so dauntingly complex. “Fear and Trembling” is a stand out, flirting with the listener through a half-open door to come in and stay awhile.


Etude No. 1 for Balloon and Violin

I think it was Stockhausen who said that if you want to become a famous composer, only write pieces for snare drum. Eventually, you will become well known as the composer who only writes pieces for snare drum. Wittingly or not, Judy Dunaway has put this theory to the test. Turns out it’s true. The proclamation asserted by the album title sure seems accurate: Dunaway is the Mother of Balloon Music. While not the first to perform on this inflatable instrument, she certainly has pioneered a gazillion ways to make balloons sound. In the first moments of her Etude No. 1 for Balloon and Violin, it’s difficult to determine which instrument is which—an astonishing feat considering the centuries old development and refinement of the latter instrument, here played by Flux Quartet maven Tom Chiu.


Elegie from Concerto for Horn

Jon Boen, French horn; Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Larry Rachleff

Even these days, every now and then I hear something that is totally surprising. Reading through the program notes and listening to the first couple of tracks of the first-ever commercially released CD of the music of Jan Bach little prepared me for what happens two minutes into the middle movement of his horn concerto. After Bach (no relation to J.S., C.P.E. or even P.D.Q., as far as I can tell) has set up our musical expectations with a heroic neo-romantic celebration of orchestral sonorities and solo prowess, he kicks it up a notch by introducing quartertones into the solo part. But they only appear in the solo part and in no other movement of the piece. This seemingly out-of-place incursion of microtonality actually adds to the otherworldliness of this tragic movement which is a memorial to a friend who died unexpectedly during a morning jog. But, please, next time, give us even more!


Lapis Blues

Robert Dick, flute; Ursel Schlicht, prepared piano

Playing a flute equipped with a specially designed telescoping headjoint to achieve the glissando coloration he requires here, Robert Dick does a bit of CPR on traditional Korean court music. His breathy tone is unexpectedly warm and smoky, swirlingly in character with the bamboo-tree sword fight staged in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Schlicht’s ever-exploring piano lines, sharply studded with the percussive prepared notes, support this magical flight.


It Is My Heart Singing

Cassatt String Quartet; Stephen Manes, piano

You know those placards you sometimes find conspicuously posted outside theaters and amusement park rides: warning, strobe lights in use. Perhaps this CD should caution its listeners about the vertigo effect induced by Tina Davidson’s music. Her minuscule melodies transform into never-ending expanses of blurry lines creating an exquisite tangle. These knotty vistas twirl and hover in space, keeping the listener three feet off the ground. The composer commands the rapturous experience like an expert snake charmer.


Beyond the Sky

Most followers of the New York new music scene will be familiar with Rob Schwimmer as Mark Stewart’s partner of crime in Polygraph Lounge, which is somewhere in between Spike Jones and Homer & Jethro for the totalist generation. But, just like their comedic antecedents, these guys can really play, which is what makes their shtick so effective. We all knew this about Stewart, an anchor to the Bang on a Can All-Stars for years, but Schwimmer has always lurked on the periphery doing session work all over the stylistic map on piano and theremin. But now there’s finally an opportunity to hear Schwimmer front and center on a disc devoted mostly to his own solo piano compositions which range from the subdued to the mani–and a few things that are both, like his cover of “Stormy Weather” which dishes out some convincing musical onomatopoeia.


Sonata for Bassoon

David Maslanka loves a melody and he’s not afraid to declare it in his Sonata for Bassoon, a work he penned for Bergen Wind Quintet bassoonist Per Hannevold. Deeply inspired by the “speaking quality” of the Bach Chorales, Maslanka finds that such Old World constructions “have always provoked a large musical fantasy in me.” Here the bassoon conveys a gamut of emotion—solemn at the outset, yet wildly celebratory by the closing measures. Indeed the entire ensemble is whipped into such a state of frenzy, I suspect that only the restraint required for the pianist to deliver the delicate solo closing note of the piece is all that prevents them from falling right off the stage.


A Little Miracle

Elizabeth Shamash, mezzo-soprano; Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Gerard Schwarz

For years I’ve been a big fan of the chamber music of Pittsburgh-based David Stock, and I think his violin concerto is one of American music’s best kept secrets. (Please, someone, release a commercial recording of it.) But I’d never heard a note of his vocal music until the arrival of this disc, the centerpiece of which is a dramatic cantata composed in 1997 relating a miraculous first-person Holocaust survival account. Over the course of 30 minutes, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shamash portrays three different characters and sings convincingly in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew as a result of Stock’s extremely idiomatic prosody. Another well-kept secret!


The Gospel According to Sam

Beware: Listening to Ken Hatfield’s soulful dobro pickin’ will make you pine for one of those old-timey porch swings and a tall glass of lemonade. If you don’t have access to either, just close your eyes and drift towards that perfect lazy summer afternoon in your mind—barefoot and gently swaying in the breeze, listening to those busy fingers gliding over the fretboard. Ah, this is the life.