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086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

Posted by jeff on Aug 1, 2017 in Classical, Other, Song Of the week

Different Trains (Parts I, II, III)

Need one apologize for listening tastes? You can listen to Justin Bieber or ‘Lawrence Welk Plays Your Polka Favorites’ all you want, I don’t care. I wish you wouldn’t tell me about it, but I don’t deny your democratic or aesthetic right to do so.

So I’m not going to apologize for the fact that in recent months I’ve become quite engrossed in Minimalist music. I realize this may not do much for my popularity at school or for the ratings of this blog, so maybe next week I’ll write about a Motown song, like The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself”, just to keep the Hit-o-meter popping.

Aware of the dangers, this week I’m going to share with you the unique experience I’ve been having with Minimalist music, specifically that of Steve Reich, specifically his composition “Different Trains”.

I admit that my tastes can run at times to the arcane, the rarified, the–well, let’s call a spade a spade–the weird. I try to mix up SoTW, but I’m aware that I’ve been on a run of crowd-displeasers recently, such as Shostakovich and Randy Newman (though I sure do believe that if people of taste made the effort to break through the unprettiness of the veneer, they could get to appreciate and love them as I do. This week we’re going even further. I really don’t think that Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” is for everyone. But it has been speaking very loudly, clearly, and affectively to me, so I want to share it with you. Here come some boring definitions:

Interior, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

‘Minimalism‘ is often applied to designate anything which is spare or stripped to its essentials. Minimalism began as a post-WWII movement in visual arts where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features; it expanded to encompass a movement in music which features repetition and iteration. The term has been used to describe a trend in design and architecture (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more”) wherein the subject is reduced to its necessary elements, often employing functional elements for aesthetic purposes (Buckminster Fuller). It has also been associated with Japanese traditional design and architecture; with the plays of Samuel Beckett, the films of Robert Bresson, the writing of Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Raymond Carver, with poet William Carlos Williams; and even with the automobile designs of Colin Chapman.

Agnes Martin, oil

Hey, I know almost all of those! (Well, I picked mostly ones I know, and I’m sure going to check out that Colin Chapman guy.)

‘Minimalist music‘ began in the 1960s as an underground contemporary classical scene in New York and San Francisco, based mostly on “consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting.” [We may not know all of those terms, but we get the gist, don’t we?] The composers associated with it are John Cage, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Strong Minimalist elements can also be found in contemporary classical music employing traditional stylistic elements, such as that of Arvo Pärt (‘Holy Minimalism’) and John Tavener (‘Mystic Minimalism’), and even reaching back to composers such as Eric Satie, Carl Orff and Anton Webern.

 

Donald Judd, sculpture

New Age and much World music certainly huddle under the Minimalist umbrella. In jazz this aesthetic is rife; there’s even an entire label, EMC, dedicated to minimalist music.

[Here comes the neat part!] Minimal music is also present in pop music. Psychedelic rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s used repetitive structures and droning techniques to express the hallucinations of LSD and other drugs in a musical language. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale had an especially close working connection with La Monte Young. Minimalism also impacted Progressive Rock [a genre I’ve studiously avoided over the years], in artists such as Soft Machine, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.

[Here comes the REALLY neat part!] In the 1990s Trance dance music was largely influenced by minimalism, based on repetitive instrumental structures. A recent favorite of mine, the ultra-bizarre Antony and The Johnsons, exhibit a completely original style of art songs, what I’d call ‘tone poems’. I’ll introduce you to “him” sometime soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, back to Steve Reich (b. 1936). He studied at Cornell (thesis on Wittgenstein, whom he of course later set to music) and Julliard. While driving a cab for a living, jazz drumming for fun, and living with Phil Glass for company, he began composing experimental music in a variety of contexts in the 1960s. A lot of it employed sampling (which anticipated the emergence of hip-hop by decades) and ‘phasing’, a process whereby two tape loops lined up in unison gradually move out of phase with each other, ultimately coming back into sync. Here are some of his notable early works:

  • ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, a phased piece constructed out of a 13-second sample of a sermon by the minister Brother Walter.
  • ‘Drumming’ (inspired by a journey to Ghana) was scored for four pairs of bongos, three marimbas, three glockenspiels, and voice.
  • ‘Pendulum Music’ which consists of the sound of several microphones swinging over the loudspeakers to which they are attached, producing feedback as they do so.

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s “Point Blank” (1967)

But it’s not all just weird, I promise you. Well, it is weird, but it’s not just weird.

  • ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, one of his seminal works, in a very fine live rendition
  • ‘Clapping Music’ – one performer keeps a line of a 12-quaver-long (12-eighth-note-long) phrase and the other performer shifts by one quaver beat every 12 bars, until both performers are back in unison 144 bars later; here’s a live performance; and here’s a TOTALLY mind-boggling version using a loop from one of the great B-movies of all time, John Boorman’s 1968 “Point Blank”, with the incredible Lee Marvin and the even incredibler Angie Dickinson

In later years, Reich began to draw materials from his Jewish background, such as ‘Tehillim’ (Psalms).

And for our Song of The Week, we’re bringing to you ‘Different Trains’, a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape (1988), which actually won the Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Snippets of recorded speech are used here as a melodic (rather than rhythmic) theme.

The piece is Reich’s attempt, as an American Jew, to explore the legacy for him of the European Holocaust – a theme that has occupied me greatly throughout my life.

Recorded spoken phrases of his governess, a retired Pullman porter, and various Holocaust survivors are interlaid with the playing of the astounding Kronos Quartet. Reich compares and contrasts (“America-Before the War – Movement 1”) his childhood memories of his train journeys between New York and California in 1939–1941 (he traveled between his parents, who were separated) with the very different trains (“Europe-During the War – Movement 2”) being used to transport contemporaneous European children to their deaths under Nazi rule, and then (“After the War – Movement 3”) with the Holocaust survivors talking about the years immediately following World War II.

Kronos Quartet

A leading professor of musicology, Richard Taruskin, called it “the only adequate musical response—one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium—to the Holocaust”, and credited the piece with earning Reich a place among the great composers of the 20th century. Reich has been described by The Guardian as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”, and critic Kyle Gann has said Reich “may be considered, by general acclamation, America’s greatest living composer.”

You can find the definitive version of ‘Different Trains’ by The Kronos Quartet at the top of this page. You might also want to check out this striking rendition of Part 2 by The Smith Quartet from a BBC broadcast, a much more straightforward explication of the Holocaust elements in the piece.

I understand that Steve Reich sells fewer albums than Arrowsmith, and that The Kronos Quartet won’t sell out Madison Square Gardens performing this piece. Nobody’s going to put them on the bill with Justin Bieber, probably not even with Wayne Newton.

But I’m not alone in finding this work riveting, profound and moving.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as Amazon

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266: Vertical Voices, ‘The Cry and The Smile’

Posted by jeff on Jul 7, 2017 in Other, Song Of the week

Vertical Voices, ‘The Cry and The Smile’

Nando Luria, ‘The Cry and The Smile’

I have some really exciting news for you: This week, SoTW is going on a field trip!
I have some less exciting new for you: We’re going to be retracing some of the circuitous, tenuously coherent musical routes I’ve been taking over the last couple of weeks.

I guess in this digital age, we could call it Streaming of Consciousness.

I’ll give you a hint of where we’re going with this: Everything Is Connected.
Pretty profound, huh? Especially when we’re talking about the highways (no pun intended) and byways of the internal sonar roadmap of this little Yorick skull here.

Where does one find a loose thread to start within the seamless continuum of time? Well, let’s start with what’s currently playing, and see where it takes us.

nando1Nando Luria, the albums ‘Points of View’ (1994) and ‘Novo Brasil’ (1996). Raised in Recife, Brazil, the self-taught guitarist/vocalist studied at Berklee College of Music. He plays an entrancing mix of butt-moving ethnic Brasilian sounds and intelligent New Age jazz. Lyricless vocals, classical guitar, shifting shuffling percussion, an airy, acoustic, sweet broth. He’s greatly influenced by Pat Metheny – they played together, and Nando is backed by Pat’s drummer (Danny Gottleib) and pianist (Lyle Mays). You can’t help but smile – he’s Brazilian.

How did we get to Nando, you might ask?

Aunt Zusha (R) in her wild youth

Aunt Zusha (R) in her wild youth

Well, not via Pat Metheny. I have a humiliating confession to make: I really do pride myself on being an open-eared, catholic (albeit Jewish), eclectic, latitudinarian listener. Yet non-Brazilian jazz guitar leaves me shrugging. I’ve tried Charlie Christian, Django, Wes Montgomery, even Jim Hall (how I wish I could fully appreciate his two collaborations with Bill Evans!), John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and everyone in between. My loss, I know. (In contrast, I’m a sucker for soprano sax. Give me my Aunt Zusha on the soprano and I’ll weep.)

My buddy, vocal visionary Roger Treece, told me I have to love his buddy Lyle Mays (see above). I’ve tried, Roger, really I have. The sound is a wonderful waft, both of him and of his guitarist bandleader Pat, but I always wind up feeling like I’ve just eaten an air sandwich with extra wind dressing.

Kerry Marsh, Julia Dollison, core of Vertical Voices

Kerry Marsh, Julia Dollison, core of Vertical Voices

I got to Nando through Vertical Voices.
Know what? It’s really hard to discern order in a process that is not based on order, but rather a fluid continuum of associations.

Last week I republished a posting about Maria Schneider, the composer/bandleader I so greatly admire, assistant to the legendary Gil Evans, mining the area between jazz and contemporary classical music. So I started listening to her again this week—it don’t take much to get me to listen to her. She relaxes me like a long walk in a Minnesota field, watching the birds and breathing the air. Which is actually exactly what her music is about.

And as I mentioned back there, there’s this husband and wife team of singers/arrangers, Kerry Marsh and Julia Dollison. In 2007, they recorded an album “Vertical Voices–the Music of Maria Schneider”, a collaboration with the composer, backed by members of her orchestra, but with the two of them singing all the horn parts. (Both Ms Schneider and VV are supported by ArtistShare, a fan-funding platform which I gladly support).

Four years ago, when I found that I had willed into being a 40-voice modern a cappella group, Vocalocity, I asked myself “What for? This is a new kind of music – rhythmic (that’s a euphemism for ‘rock’) music made solely by voices. Why not just use the time-proven Chuck Berry format?”

That’s when I got really weird. I started asking all my friends from the world of modern a cappella “What’s the raison d’etre for this music? I love it, but what can the voice do that other instruments can’t?”

idea-clip-art-lightbulb-idea-clipart-8236615I learned quite a lot (at the cost of not a few raised eyebrows). The voice can sing a single (singable) note, and change the sound—warble, twang, hollow, resonate, anything. No other instrument is flexible like that. A piano makes the sound of a piano. A sax pretty much the same. The voice can make a whole shitload of different sounds. Hey!

I understand that not everyone in the world loses sleep over this question (the fundamental nature of vocal music), but it turns out I ain’t the only one. Kerry Marsh (remember? V of VV): “The goal was never to directly imitate the sounds of the instruments themselves, but to present the music with the kind of life and emotion that only the human voice can provide, even without explicitly telling a story through the use of a lyric.”

That guy is talking my non-language. One of the very cool things about this cult I inhabit is the friendliness. People in the field talk to each other, even the stars with the mere peons like myself. I just dropped Kerry Marsh a line, telling him how much I appreciate what he’s doing. And he wrote me right back telling me how much he appreciates my appreciation.

Vertical Voices

Vertical Voices

Where were we? Oh, yeah. After the Maria Schneider project, in 2010 Mr and Mrs Marsh/Dollison added two more singers to Vertical Voices and released “Fourward”, which has been riveting my attention all week long.

Compare Bob Mintzer’s group Yellowjacket’s ‘Timeline’ to the cover version by Vertical Voices. The original is lovely. I gotta listen to Yellowjacket more—that’s near the top of the listening list for next week, right behind a more exhaustive examination of the entire, wackily diverse catalog of Snarky Puppy.

Jacob Collier, Becca Stevens

Jacob Collier, Becca Stevens

Or compare Nando Luria’s ‘The Cry and The Smile’ to the cover version by Vertical Voices. Nando floats. VV soars. Nando’s guitar and drums and voice are beautiful. VV’s voices (with rhythm section) are beautifuller. You know what? They achieve aural climax. The human voice. Oh, man!

Or compare Pat Metheny’s ‘Travels‘ to the cover version by Vertical Voices. Pat wrote a charming, affective tune. VV’s version? Someone (I suspect arranger Kerry Marsh) has been listening to the celestial choirs of Brian Wilson. They’re both made out of air, but there’s a big difference between vapid and celestial.

Or compare Imogen Heap’s ‘First Train Home’ to the cover version by Vertical Voices. Imogen Heap has inspired a lot of the a cappella/vocal artists I listen to (check out Vocal Line’s beautiful ‘Let Go’). She’s done some of the most interesting vocal explorations in recent years (‘Hide and Seek’). Her and that guy Bon Iver (‘Woods’). Not to mention Jacob Collier.

Snarky Puppy

Snarky Puppy

Twenty times this week:
“Listen to this ‘Fourward’ by Vertical Voices! It’s a cappella with a rhythm section!”
“Jeff, you’re contradicting yourself. A cappella means without instruments.”
“Yeah, I know. But they’re doing something new. A vocal mindset, with a little help from friends. Releasing the singers from the ‘technical’ tasks of percussion and bass-drive. That’s new!!”

And then, as I’m starting to go through Snarky Puppy’s discography, what do I trip over? Them backing up a young singer named Chantae Cann. The first cut—‘Da Da’n Da’. Do you want to tell me that she hasn’t been listening to Maria Schneider? Or at least been informed by it? Yeah, it’s Snarky Puppy, but she’s doing all these voices! I swear, she’s a musical cousin of Dollison and Marsh.

Chantae Cann with Snarky Puppy, in my musical mind, lives next door to Dollison and Marsh. That’s what gets me – how do you get from VV to Chantae via Snarky Puppy? How does each connect to Michael League’s collective? That’s the fascinating synapse that I think people should pay more attention to. Or am I the only one hearing those voices? Whoops.

Screw the voices, I’m going to tell you anyway. There’s a commonality there. A way of perceiving the aural universe around us, that these artists have in common. Maybe they watch the same TV shows, read the same on-line magazines, affect similar styles in dress and hair. Maybe it’s just the sound of our times. But in my mind, it’s all connected.

5033f2144a2a6abebace6e773e45262fThe next YouTube clip is Snarky Puppy with Becca Stevens and Väsen. (Väsen is a Swedish Nordic Roots band, another sonic world that I’ve developed an addiction to). Becca is a knockout young singer whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing extensively on this stuff. She’s played with Jacob Collier (and he’s of course also recorded with Snarky Puppy). She sings in a trio with who’s also recorded with Rebecca Martin and the fine, fine Gretchen Parlato as Tillery,  not so far afield from other chick groups doing cutting edge vocal work all over the musical globe, like the all-star alt-Americana group I’m With Her. And tell me that they’re not connected to the very ballsy Finnish a cappella quartet Tuuletar. Or, in the other direction, to The Staves.
Cool, creative young women singing.

You see what I have to deal with? This hurly-burly jumble of voices in my mind? Beyond my willful predilection for inventing chains and associations and comparisons and tangents, what connects it all?

The human voice. The only instrument fashioned by God.

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081: Maria Schneider, ‘The Pretty Road’

Posted by jeff on Jun 28, 2017 in Jazz, Other, Song Of the week

Our Song of The Week is ‘The Pretty Road’, by Maria Schneider. Here’s a teaser of the recording, from the CD “Sky Blue” (2007).

You can and should purchase this CD (and all her others) from her official Website or from ArtistShare or another vendor.

While you’re reading about Ms Schneider’s airborne music, you can listen to samples of it here, from her official Website.

Over the last four or five years, my musical tastes have become more eclectic, roaming far afield, exploring some rather arcane corners (Scandinavian Neo-Trad, Minimalism, Newgrass, a wide range of Brazilian styles, A Cappella Jazz), places where most boys weaned on Motown and The Four Seasons don’t go walking at night. But there have been four artists that I’ve encountered over the past five years who stand out in my mind as rising above the field, four artists who make worthwhile this constant, compulsive searching for interesting new music.

They are Kurt Elling (b. 1967) of Chicago, the best male jazz vocalist ever, period; Luciana Souza (b. 1966), a Brazilian singer, who turns to gold everything she touches; Esperanza Spalding (b. 1984), hailing from Portland, Oregon, a jazz-bassist/singer/composer prodigy; and Maria Schneider (b. 1960), a bandleader/composer of music residing somewhere between avant-garde jazz and modern classical, and the lady we’re button-popping proud to say a few words about in this week’s SoTW.

As I write these four names together for the first time, it occurs to me that they have much more in common than I’d previously noticed. Obviously, they all make (to my mind and ears) great, great, great music, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about them. But they all happen to be great innovators.

Not all great artists are innovators. There are plenty who are content to dig their own groove, conservative though it may be. Think of Bill Evans. Think of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. No revolutions there. Heck, as far as I understand, JS Bach dealt almost exclusively with existing formats.

The least adventuresome of my four, generically speaking, is Mr Elling. He is ‘merely’ reinventing what a jazz singer can be, expanding the boundaries that have been observed since people like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald invented jazz singing in the 1930s.

The other three, the ladies? What a remarkable three they are. Each one of them has invented an entirely new mindset, her own new genre. These are explorers on the level of Amelia Earhart and Pocahontas, aural aviatrices, creative artists on a par with—well, sorry, I’m not going to compare them to anyone. I’m not sure I could. They are fine, fine, fine artists, each of the three.

I’ve been writing SoTW for close to two years now, and I’m very much aware that I’ve shied away from these, the greatest artists I know of now at the height of their powers. (although I did dedicate a post to Esperanza Spalding; Kurt and Luciana, I promise I shall do my best to give you the unbounded credit you deserve). I guess I’m daunted, afraid I won’t be able to do them justice. Well, tough, Jeff, that’s why you’re here. And if there are some people out there who are serious about music and who read your ramblings and listen to your links, you’re damn lucky, and you have an obligation to tell them about an artist like Maria Schneider.

Well, sportsfans, there is this lady who hails from rural Minnesota and lives in New York. She studied under and worked with the great Gil Evans, whom we’ve discussed in SoTWs via his collaborations with Miles Davis in “Birth of the Cool” and “Sketches of Spain“, as well as his behind-the-scenes impact on the modal jazz of “Kind of Blue“.

(Just to clarify things, if the name Maria Schneider is ringing some deja vu bell, it’s also the name of the French actress who played with Marlon Brando in “Last Tango in Paris”. For my money, Ms Schneider the composer holds a much more subtle and enticing sex appeal.)

To talk about Gil Evans and Maria Schneider, we need to explain what they’re not. And to do that, we need to define the term ‘Big Band’. The standard format for a Big Band is 17-pieces: five saxophones (most often two altos, two tenors, and one baritone), four trumpets, three or four trombones (often including one bass trombone) and a four-piece rhythm section (composed of drums, acoustic bass or electric bass, piano and guitar). The first incarnation of The Big Band was Swing, a melodic, ebullient dance-styled music which captured the world’s ears and feet from the mid-1930s till after WWII. The most famous Swing Bands were white, led by bandleaders such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, with vocalists such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. A number of black Big Bands were less dance hall, more jazz oriented, and continued working into the 1950s and even 1960s, most notably Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Gil Evans arranged for the Claude Thornhill big band during the 1940s, providing dreamy, slow, rich charts, as opposed to the swinging dance sound more prevalent among the white bands. Throughout the 1950s his best work was by, for and with Miles Davis. He was the musical spirit behind the Birth of the Cool grouping (his apartment was the meeting place for all the adherents). In fact, he’s often credited for being the spiritual father of Cool, an aesthetic that has dominated much of the arts for the last 60 years. He made three great collaborations with Miles (“Porgy and Bess“, “Sketches of Spain” and “Miles Ahead“, as well as one very much in the same vein under his own name, “Out of the Cool”. During the 1960s he made several very fine albums with smaller ensembles (10-piece), planned a collaboration with Jimi Hendrix till the latter ODed, and in the 1970s continued to explore the use of electric instruments within the context of his big band.

Maria Schneider is very much Gil Evans’ pupil. She worked on a number of projects with him as his assistant, and very much carries his mantle stylistically. The ‘sound’ of the two is very close–dreamy, floating, cloudy, rich, infinitely intricate.

But Ms Schneider has gone so much further. Evans was primarily a promulgator of an aesthetic. His major achievements were brought to fruition in collaboration with Miles, and indirectly on generations of artists from all fields. Maria Schneider has opened up entirely new vistas. There are a number of contemporary big bands working today. It’s a genre I’m quite fond of, large-palette, orchestrated jazz, and there are some fine artists working in this medium. But none has reached the breadth of context or the heights of musical achievements that Ms Schneider has. No one in the jazz or contemporary classical media has found such a relevant, thoroughly contemporary mode for expressing such a large, ambitious vision. This is the big-time, folks.

Maria Schneider recorded six full CDs from 1992-2007 (where’s a new one?), despite all the financial and logistic difficulties of maintaining a large ensemble. Her band, by the way, has remained remarkably stable. It is said that the members don’t just play her music–they would take a bullet for her.

Her last two albums have been released via ArtistShare, where musicians finance their projects outside the traditional recording industry via “fan-funding,” with supporters directly contributing to the project invited in to follow the creative process (how far depending on the level of contribution–give enough, you’re even invited to the recording session).

Maria Schneider is managing reasonably well financially in this way, artistically even better. In 2005, her “Concert in the Garden” became the first album to win a Grammy without being available in retail stores. She’s been nominated for and won many more since. The critics adore her, as do the lucky fans who’ve discovered her.

But we’re neglecting the music. It’s been called “evocative, majestic, magical, heart-stoppingly gorgeous.” It defies genre-categorization. In format, it’s standard Big Band, but the music exhibits a symphonic palette, broad and complex and rich and intriguing. Her compositions are often compared to those of Mahler and Copland. They’re ephemeral, transcendental and melodic, often simultaneously. Not impressionistic, but carefully thought out and planned and considered. Incorporating the vast, open, airy Minnesota landscape where she was raised. Thoroughly modern, thoroughly American, thoroughly personal. She’s even been called Nabokovian! A brainy romantic, passionate, an aural aviatrix.

Her music is a wonder to me. Take for example her sense of pulse. Often there’s a drum playing straightforward rhythmic riffs. But there’s never a beat. You’ll never tap your foot. Your soul will soar with the music, not bounce around the dance floor. I don’t know how she does it. The drums don’t provide a beat, they provide a pulse. They propel it without anchoring to the ground. The music moves, but it floats. Can you dance to the wind propelling a cloud?

Here is a segment of a beautiful composition in a remarkable ArtistShare collaboration, “Vertical Voices“, in which two vocalists, Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh, perform most of the parts of Ms Schneider’s scores vocally, accompanied by the rhythm section from the original band.

Here’s Ms Schneider describing the project. This is groundbreaking stuff. And it’s beautiful. But still, the original, for my money, is the sublimely exquisite music.

And here’s a glorious clip of her conducting her orchestra in 2007:

Maria Schneider’s music may be deceptively light at first. It’s very easy on the ear. It’s beautiful and gentle on the ear. But I’ve been listening to it for several years now, a lot. And I’ve yet to plumb its depths. I listen to it over and over, always discovering new nuances and colorings and shadings. I never tire of it, and it never fails to make me feel as though I’ve been airborne.

In addition to her exceptional talents, Maria Schneider also seems to be a charming person. Here she is talking about her CD “Sky Blue“. And here’s a fascinating interview about her creative process.

Maria Schneider is a passionate bird-watcher. She often incorporates bird songs in her compositions. If you ask me, there are many birds who could learn a lot from her about how to fly.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 020: Esperanza Spalding, ‘I Know You Know’

SoTW 035: Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity’ (“Birth of the Cool”)

SoTW 041: Miles Davis, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’

SoTW 055: Miles Davis/Gil Evens, “Sketches of Spain”

SoTW 079: Miles Davis, ‘So What’ (“Kind of Blue”)

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092: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, ‘Babar’ (“The Melody of Rhythm”)

Posted by jeff on Apr 19, 2017 in New Acoustic, Other, Song Of the week

Alchemy 101: Take a jazz banjoist, a classical double-bassist and a percussionist of traditional Indian music, mix vigorously, and waddaya get? “The Melody of Rhythm”. Oh, yeah, and if you’re feeling really rambunctious, or perverse, just for fun you can also toss in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the baton of maestro Leonard Slatkin.

Let’s see if we can demystify that, or at least demist it.

Like so many other New York kids, Béla Fleck (b. 1958) got turned onto the banjo by (snore) ‘Dueling Banjos‘ from the film “Deliverance”, where a city slicker plays acoustic guitar behind the front-porch banjo of an Appalachian backwoods idiot savant kid, before the latter’s uncle rapes the city guy just for fun.

That very famous clip is a Hollywoodized taste of bluegrass, which is a folk music from those mountains, popularized in the 1940s and 1950s by Bill Monroe and Earl Flatt & Lester Scruggs. Arising from Scottish-Irish roots, traditional bluegrass is typically based on a small set of acoustic stringed instruments including mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, dobro and upright bass. Note the absence of drums.

In the 1970s and northwards, some stellar musicians such as Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Andy Statman and Tony Rice played a lot of second generation bluegrass. Then in the 1980s a newer aesthetic began to evolve from these roots, progressive bluegrass or ‘newgrass’, led by Mr Fleck himself. These musicians retained the original orchestration of bluegrass, but incorporated a jazz-based musicality, resulting in a wonderfully unclassifiable new sub-genre with its own very loyal cadre of followers and an active festival circuit. Bela’s home base for the past 30 years has been his own band The Flecktones, who have made tons of innovative, marvelous music, but he’s also been involved in heaps of transient projects with a number of recurring partners, one of whom is Edgar Meyer, with whom he’s been fiddling around with for 25 years.

Jazz/classical/newgrass bassist Meyer (b. 1960) hails from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, received his classical training at Indiana, and in 2002 was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, “The Genius Award”, the neatest recognition bestowed on humans. Edgar has recorded in more contexts than would seem possible – Bach’s cello suites on bass; a solo album playing piano, double bass, guitar, banjo, viola da gamba, mandolin and dobro; the Coplandian Grammy-winning “Appalachian Journey” and “Appalachian Waltz”, collaborations with Yo Yo Ma and newgrass fiddler Mark O’Connor, a rarity case of respectable ‘classical crossover’; and several knockout concerti of his own composition recorded with symphony orchestras, one for double bass, one for double bass and cello (played by good old Yo Yo), one for banjo (guess who) and double bass, and a triple concerto for double bass, banjo and tabla that you just might read about below.

Zakir Hussain (Hindi: ज़ाकिर हुसैन, Urdu: ذاکِر حسین, in case you were wondering) was born in 1951 in Mumbai, son of the legendary tabla player Alla Rakha. Zakir was a child prodigy on the tabla, moved to the US in 1970 and began playing with the likes of George Harrison, John McLaughlin, Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, and Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. This was much to the chagrin of his father, who refused to condone this newfangled stuff until Zakir promised him that he would never stop playing traditional Indian music. I really don’t get what was bugging dad, who had himself appeared alongside Ravi Shankar (Norah Jones’ father) at the Monterey and Woodstock festivals, as well as recording an album with Buddy Rich! But Dad had some stature. Mickey Hart: “Allarakha is the Einstein, the Picasso; he is the highest form of rhythmic development on this planet.” The tabla, for the uninitiated amongst you, “involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different sounds, reflected in the mnemonic syllables (bol). The heel of the hand is used to apply pressure or in a sliding motion on the larger drum so that the pitch is changed during the sound’s decay.” That may not sound too intriguing, but just listen to how Zakir says it. Convinced, are you?

So these three guys get together in 2009 – sort of like a centaur, a mermaid, and a Toyota Prius in a ménage a trois – and record an album called “The Melody of Rhythm.”

There are nine cuts on the CD, the middle three being the aforementioned Triple Concerto. Thom Jurek, the most effusive music writer around, calls it a “spacious, wide-ranging, beautifully paced concerto with the trio interacting on its own quite intently and with the DSO not as individual instrumentalists, but as a group in dialogue with the orchestra [in a mix of] jazz, Indian folk forms, classical music, Appalachian folk, progressive instrumental music.”

The first and last three pieces on the CD are just our three guys creating something wholly other – unique, transcending taxonomy like nothing else you’ve ever heard, as natural and organic as a single petal of a daisy, unforced, convincing and absolutely lovely. Here you are, our SoTW, ‘Babar’, the first cut from “The Melody of Rhythm”. Indeed.

For your further listening edification:
There are lots of YouTube clips of the trio performing live, all of problematic audio quality. Here’s a nice NPR article on the them with some links of better quality.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these off-beat recommendations:

068: Hermeto Pascoal, ‘Santa Catarina’
063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’
030: The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – ‘Pilentze Pee’
003: Garcia/Grisman, ‘So What’

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