Music Review

A Harvest of First Cuttings

David J. Roch: Skin & Bones (Dram)

The punk aspiration that "everyone can" has been rendered by the digital age a democratic reality, and a jaundiced reward. A tsunami of silver discs panhandle the ears of listeners, and as a result an air of capable mediocrity holds sway, an invisible ether of downloads gas expectations with their average worth instant availability, and then, but only occasionally, something creeps out of the speakers that startles and stuns, demands proper attention, and soars above the parliament of ordinary birds and their common-place warblings.

New Lutoslawski Album

The major attraction here, with all due respect to the great Concerto for Piano & Orchestra of 1988, is the Symphony No. 4, because there have only been (to my knowledge) four previous recordings of it. All of them are reputed to be excellent, but I have only two to compare it to, both conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. He makes it sound by turns more mysterious and more passionate, and also more taut; this new one has more spectacular sonics and presents the work more as a piece of abstract modernism. With Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) one of the top five Polish composers ever, and one of the better 20th century composers, alternative versions of his masterpieces are worth having, and this one is very welcome.

ANNIVERSARIES: Last Day of March Brought Instant-Classic Albums 25 Years Ago

Tuesday was already the traditional album release day in the U.S. by March 31, 1987. Music fans' choices among the new releases that day included Close to the Bone by the Thompson Twins, The Circus by Erasure, and the two albums I refer to in the headline: Prince's Sign o' the Times and Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing. Both of the latter artists had proven their talent by that point, and these releases were eagerly anticipated.

Sign o' the Times (Warner Bros.) was a double LP (barely under 80 minutes), always a major statement (discounting live doubles). It is to Prince what There's a Riot Goin' On was to Sly & the Family Stone: an album of schizophrenic swings between dire warnings of social disaster, personal darkness and confusion, and seemingly desperate attempts to stave it all off by often-lascivious partying -- and also an artistic peak.

ANNIVERSARIES: Beethoven Died 185 Years Ago

When Beethoven died on 26 March 1827 in Vienna, he had been ill for over three months, in which time he completed no compositions. It was the culmination of a long string of illnesses; his work was seriously interrupted in 1811, 1812, 1816-17, 1821, 1825, and from December 1826 to his death. (His extensive meddling in the lives of various relatives had also interfered with his musical productivity.)

We ran an ANNIVERSARIES piece for Beethoven's birthday in 2010 that looked at recordings of his symphonies. Now, to mark the anniversary of his death, we look at his piano sonatas. Beethoven transformed the sonata nearly as much as the symphony, his 32 canonical works (which doesn't include the early C major sonata and F major sonatina without opus numbers or the three "Elector" sonatas Wo47) in the form varying greatly and achieving, especially in the last five or six, an epic, questing quality that's highly personal.

Prague Philharmonia Brings Czech Musical Delights to NYC

One of the more anticipated classical concerts this season will take place on Wednesday, March 21, when the Prague Philharmonia and its founder and honorary artistic director, Czech conductor Jiří Bĕlohlávek, bring an exceptionally interesting program to the Bohemian National Hall. They will be performing Mozart's Don Giovanni Overture, Janáček’s Suite for Strings, and Voříšek’s Symphony in D. The Mozart is well known, of course, but the Janáček is a relatively early work of his and the Voříšek -- the main work on the program -- is a masterpiece heard far too rarely in concert halls, especially in the U.S.

Catching Up with Leo, Part 3

Leo Records' first batch of 2012 releases (some of which I already wrote about here) includes two featuring saxophonist/bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann, both featuring his bass clarinet work with special projects: his long-running group The Clarinet Trio with fellow clarinetists Jurgen Kupke (clarinet) and Michael Thieke (clarinet, alto clarinet), and another trio, BASSX3, wherein Ullmann teams with bassists Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas. I not only immediately looked forward to reviewing both of them, as Mr. Ullmann is one of my favorite artists, I also relished these releases as an opportunity to look back on his earlier work on Leo Records, both with The Clarinet Trio and in other contexts. As before, dates in parentheses after album titles are recording dates, with release on Leo sub-labels also noted there.

Jazz Duo's Reunion Yields Spontaneous Delights

David Liebman - Richie Beirach Duo
Cornelia St. Café, February 25, first set

Saxophonist David Liebman and pianist Richie Beirach have been working together at least since 1973, in the band Lookout Farm. Later they reteamed in the band Quest, and have had many duo collaborations as well. Fortunately for New Yorkers, the Brooklyn-born friends have in recent years made it a habit to get back together for a concert every February. Though that has usually been in the form of Quest, this year it was a duo at this intimate and much-loved Greenwich Village venue.

Tempting Mirage

Lindsey Buckingham Appreciation Society: Mirage
Friday 2/17 at Johnny Brenda's in Philadelphia, PA
Saturday 2/18 at Littlefield in Brooklyn, NY

No matter how mainstream and unhip a band is, there is always the chance that it will become so unhip that its very unhipness will make it hip. Especially if something's got actual merits, after a sufficient amount of time has passed, distance will bring the perspective that says that the band's demerits have been overstated and are unfairly overshadowing its value. Throw in a healthy dose of nostalgia for something fondly remembered, and the "fifty million [fill-in-the-blank] fans can't be wrong" syndrome turns out to be true.

The Return of the Toughest Tenor

Charles Gayle Trio: Streets (Northern Spy)

There was a time, two decades ago, when a dedicated cult regularly went to the old Knitting Factory (on Houston Street, when it was still mostly a jazz club) on Mondays, because for months at a time the club would have Charles Gayle play two sets every Monday night. If you were a fan of hardcore free jazz, that was THE regular gig in New York in the early '90s.

Born in Buffalo in 1939, Gayle had hit New York City by the early '70s. He almost made his mark with an album on venerable avant-garde label ESP-Disk in 1974, but the label shut down before it came out (revived last decade, it once again has plans to release that album -- keep your fingers crossed!).

New Rock Music Release Roundup

Nada Surf: The Stars Are Indifferent to Astrology (Barsuk)
I know it's early, but this sure feels like the album of the year. In fact, I'm even ready to crown this the power pop album of the decade. Oh, there's an occasional ballad ("When I Was Young" is especially notable) that reminds of Matthew Caws's twee side, but mostly this rocks out, with guest Doug Gillard (Guided by Voices, Cobra Verde, Death of Samantha, etc.) an important presence -- that wild guitar on "Teenage Dreams" has gotta be him. Rarely has bittersweet sounded so tough. Nada Surf's made lots of excellent albums, but this is their best yet. A limited edition version comes with a second disc containing acoustic versions of five of the album's songs.