Music Review

Steve's July Rock Review Roundup

Asia: XXX (Frontiers)

That title's not triple-X as in porn, it's Roman numerals marking this supergroup's thirtieth anniversary (though I bet the confusion will increase this page's hits). Yup, three decades ago, "Heat of the Moment" was a massive hit. However, critics have tended to dislike Asia, either for dealing in pop rather than the glorious prog-rock of its members' previous bands -- Yes, ELP, and King Crimson -- or (if said critics are on the other side of the great divide) as dinosaurs still too proggy for naysayers in the post-punk era. Not this critic, through; I have always enjoyed John Wetton's voice, layered vocal harmonies, and melodic sense in every context, and never found Geoff Downes's keyboards and catchy songwriting/production the sacrilege that purist proggers did. 

Another Great Album from Chris Smither

Chris Smither: Hundred Dollar Valentine (Signature Sounds)

Surprisingly, this is the first album in Smither's nearly five-decade career to consist entirely of his own songs. It includes new versions of two older ones, both of them dark. The oldest, "I Feel the Same," is a concisely heart-wrenching breakup song that's been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Candi Staton, Esther Phillips, and more, but sounds best in Smither's bleak reading. "Every Mother's Son," about vigilante terrorists, is even more chilling: "You know you made your son Joseph a dangerous man, / He's gone to town and bought himself a gun [….] Vengeance is mine, he said, come join the fun, / He looked more like a Judas on the run." 

ANNIVERSARIES Composer Frederic Mompou Died 25 Years Ago

Born in Barcelona on April 16, 1893 to a Catalan lawyer and his French wife, Frederic (a.k.a. Federico) Mompou was educated in Paris. Shyness kept him from a career as a pianist, though while at the Paris Conservatory, he studied piano with Isidor Philipp, among whose teachers were Saint-Saëns and Chopin's best student, George Mathias. Though he was initially influenced by Fauré's music, by the time Mompou arrived in Paris, the Impressionists reigned supreme, and that style profoundly shaped his own compositional evolution. (For that matter, Philipp was a friend of Debussy's and often played his piano music.) After a long dry spell as a composer, and the Nazi invasion in 1941, Mompou returned to his native Catalonia (the northeastern-most region of Spain), where he lived for the rest of his long life. 

Reunion of Famous Sons

Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison/Jojo Mayer
David Fiuczynski Quintet
ShapeShifter Lab, Brooklyn
June 8, 2012

Saxophonist John Coltrane’s saxophonist son playing with the bassist son of Coltrane Quartet bassist Jimmy Garrison might impress cynics as a gimmick, but everyone who heard the fireworks their ad-hoc trio (and, eventually, quartet) set off at this concert knows that it’s as far from a gimmick as can be. It is, instead, two friends who have known each other since childhood taking advantage of their deep rapport to create a music of intuitive reactions that is a very modern descendent of what their dads were doing half a century ago.

ANNIVERSARIES: Mahler's Ninth Symphony Premiered 100 Years Ago

Written after Gustav Mahler had been diagnosed with a life-threatening heart disease, his Ninth Symphony -- the last the composer completed-- has been widely interpreted as reflecting that knowledge, but of course there are many reactions produced by the prospect of death. The lengthy first movement is a meditation on the mysteries, terrors, and -- yes -- consolations of death. Leonard Bernstein, who never shied away from romanticizing biographical details, proclaimed the asymmetrical rhythms at the beginning to be a portrayal of the composer's irregular heartbeat.

New Top Choice for Bach Motets

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner's superb and detailed notes for this release (on his choir's own label) open with this bold statement: "Bach's motets constitute the most perfect, and in some ways the most hypnotic, set amongst his works." They were not even remotely conceived of as a "set," however -- unlike, for example, the sonatas and partitas for violin, or the cello suites, or the Well-Tempered Clavier, the motets were created independently, over the course of many years, probably (and in some cases, certainly) for specific occasions. However, in a way that actually helps make Gardiner's case, because their resulting variety of style and structure is attractive. 

June Classical Review Roundup

Young Canadian pianist David Jalbert’s rendition of the Goldberg Variations has been growing on me for two months. In the wake of last year’s dazzlingly athletic version by Minsoo Sohn, this seemed less momentous. Well, even if it’s not overthrowing my #1 choice -- Murray Perahia’s supremely refined rendition with its wonderful palette of timbres -- or surpassing a couple of Gould’s, or Sohn’s, it is deeply satisfying: technically and interpretively impressive, imaginative without crossing the line into quirky. 

Accurate Ambience

How to Change the World 
Brian Eno & James Thorton chaired by Anne McElvoy
The Globe Hall, Hay on Wye, United Kingdom
Saturday, 9 June 2012
How the Light Gets In is a wonderfully eclectic confection of philosophy, art, film, and music. An annual event spread over eleven days in the small market town of Hay on Wye, it is stimulating. diverse, and largely at the mercy of the elements. A strangely appealing mixture of tents and marquees spread, in a seemingly random fashion, over a site that has a myriad of pathways and stairs. You get the feeling of being transported back centuries to a rustic fair. Today the sun is shining, a direct flip of the downpour of yesterday, and there's an air of celebration added by the bars, and the constant variety of singers and entertainers who are happy to perform to the few or many who decide to stop and listen.

ANNIVERSARIES: Mahler Premiered His Third Symphony 110 Years Ago

Mahler's Symphony No. 3 in D minor is his longest, a six-movement ode to Nature and the World. It includes a children's choir and a contralto soloist but is largely instrumental, using a quite large orchestra complete with posthorn, harps, English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, bass trombones, and a lot more brass than usual. Mahler's nature is not exclusively a calm pastoral scene -- it's stormy, uneasy, sometimes threatening, with mysterious rustling and twittering, yet with rays of sunlight cutting through the shadows at times.

This work had a long and confusing path from conception to completion. Mahler wrote movements II through VI in the summer of 1895. The following year, he worked on a first movement, weaving in elements of the movements he’d written in '95. That movement kept growing and growing -- at least a half an hour long, by itself it as long as all of Beethoven's First Symphony. 

Something's Got a Hold on Me

William Blake: Echoes of Etta
Birdland Jazz Club
June 4, 2012
William Blake rocked (and I do mean rocked!) Birdland this past Monday evening with his show Echoes of Etta. With cleverly and unobtrusively contemporized arrangements by Michael Thomas Murray, Mr. Blake served up choice offerings of Etta James songs. Using his high, mighty, and absolutely solid killer blue-eyed soul voice, Mr. Blake knocked the over-produced Etta emulators off the chart, singing with a vocal certainty and emotional sincerity that puts the others to shame. Echoes of Etta was just that: Mr. Blake's skill allowed him to vocally honor Ms. James's artistry, yet still maintain his own identity as the amazing singer he is.