Steve Evans, vocals; Jake Vinsel, bass; Noritaka Tanaka, drums; Leandro Lopez Varady, piano
According to the booklet notes on his new 2-CD set, jazz vocalist Steve Evans originally intended to release a live recording of his quartet, but “technical difficulties” intervened. So instead he imposed strict restrictions on his studio process in the hopes of recreating the conditions necessary to have a “live” sound. And it worked! As does Earle’s idiosyncratic choice of repertoire which extends well beyond standards to include songs by Tom Waits and Nick Drake, as well as jazzifications of classical compositions by Britten and Rodrigo. Having never been a fan of the singing of Tom Waits but liking a lot of his material, I’m also thrilled to hear his “Clap Hands” sung by someone with great pipes: check out Evans’s breathtaking high note on the sample we’re featuring here.
Peggy Pearson, oboe; Jo-Ann Sternberg, clarinet; Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra; Scott Yoo, conductor
I’m not a concerto fan. It all boils down to this: the huge chasm separating the sense of intimacy inherent to chamber music from the power monolithic sound that only the orchestra can produce. When I listen to a concerto, this gap is rarely bridged, and I find my head bouncing left, right, and back to the left again, as if at some sonic tennis match were taking place. So I braced myself when I decided to give John Harbison’s Concerto for Oboe, Clarinet, and Strings a shot. During the opening, I was disheartened to think that this wonderful sounding dialogue between the soloists would soon cease being a feisty little chamber music duo. Then, enter the strings. Okay, not bad. The intimacy seems somehow intact—I’m still facing forward. As the orchestra locks into an asymmetrical new-music-style groove, things get a little heavy, but that’s just the nature of the beast. Harbison demonstrates a lion tamer’s command, wrestling with the beast unscathed.
William Kopecky, electric bass; Dan Maske, keyboards; Angela Schmidt, cello; Craig Walkner, drums
Although all of the tracks on this second CD of the primal Milwaukee-based post-prog outfit Far Corner are credited to keyboardist Dan Maske, the opening “Inhuman” is a group improvisation that shows off the chops of all four members of the group, especially bassist William Kopecky. It is difficult listening, but it’s chock full of so many ideas that you’ll inevitably want to return to it again and again. Playing this disc is a surefire argument winner against anyone who thinks that music with origins in rock should not be considered part of a purview of new music that embraces contemporary classical composition and jazz.
What do you get when you cross Scottish indie rockers Mogwai with the Kronos Quartet? I’ll give you a hint: It’s languid, laidback, and darkly evocative, veiled with pathos but featuring the occasional turn-on-a-dime energetic outbursts while somehow still being restrained by its own melancholy. It’s Clint Mansell’s soundtrack for Darren Aronofsky’s latest flick, The Fountain. Sure, the film all but bombed at the box office—not enough SnorriCam-work or so-called hip-hop montages, I guess—but it’s no fault of the composer and musicians. The CD is lush and bleak, the prefect accompaniment for a dreamy journey down the rabbit hole.
The “blue” of this piece doesn’t just come through in the flatted notes in Elliott Sharp’s guitar playing or the minor-key refrain in the rough timbres of trombone and baritone sax. It’s also the color that a wind musician’s face might turn upon attempting to recreate the harmonics, arpeggiated runs, and furious trills of Sharp’s solos. The title of this piece isn’t merely a buzzword that surfaces around national elections; Sharp and his group Terraplane make it a tense, anxious mood: sometimes still and calm, sometimes swarming and confrontational.
Chorus of the University of Utah and brass from the Utah Symphony conducted by Newell Weight
Here’s another curio from New World’s ongoing project to reissue the back catalogue of the sadly discontinued Composers Recordings Inc. (CRI): a harmonically eclectic setting of the mass for chorus and brass composed by Vladimir Ussachevsky, who today is remembered almost exclusively for his work from the early days of electronic music. Composed between 1971 and 1972 in fulfillment of a BMI commission during a residency at the University of Utah, Ussachevsky’s completely acoustic Missa Brevis reveals another dimension of this timbral pioneer—a composer completely comfortable in a tonal but harmonically eclectic idiom.
James Kosnick, organ; David Walker and Rob Cross, percussion
Here’s one for the oddest-instrumentation-you’ll-hear-this-month category: a work for organ and two percussionists. And such a combination can create some really ferocious sounds, all of which find their way into Virginia-based composer Adolphus Hailstork’s appropriately turbulent 29-minute response to the events of September 11, 2001.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
At the center of this five-movement work is a spare, tense and perfectly named section: “Sense of Doubt.” The alternation of heavy descending figures and light, shimmering sounds captures the uncertainty of Cold War-era Berlin that inspired the 1977 Brian Eno/David Bowie album and, in turn, Glass’s 1996 symphony. The work opens with typically heroic sounds (soaring horns, ascending melodies), but by the third movement, Glass shows that even heroes sometimes don’t know where to turn.
David Gier, trombone; David Greenhoe, trumpet
The piece gives its name to a CD of “Chamber Trios with Trombone.” Stemper’s note on the performance reflects a political edge (it was written in the “bewildering span of time between 9/11 and the Iraq ‘conflict'”), and the piece wildly veers from subtle to raging to comical. The explorations of timbre and attack rarely conjure up military associations, and the writing doesn’t stretch the brass players into high, pinched registers. By keeping trumpet and trombone in their middle range, Stemper allows them to stay focused and forceful.
Mark Hill, oboe
A joke, long circulated among woodwind players (how it ever made it back to me in the trombone section, I’ll never know):
What’s the difference between an oboe and a clarinet?
A clarinet burns longer.
But on Alchemy (suggestive of a transformation by fire), oboist Mark Hill’s sizzling sound falls somewhere between the two instruments, with multiphonic playing, buzzing trills, and just the right amount of shrillness. Listen for a surprising pitch-bend near the end of this clip; it’s fiery, but it’s no joke.