Music Review

Paul Motian (March 25, 1931 - November 22, 2011)

Paul Motian passed away at age 80 yesterday after complications from the bone-marrow disorder myelodisplastic syndrome. In a career that exceeded five decades, Motian was one of the most respected drummers in jazz history as well as a superb composer and adept bandleader. Critic Art Lange called him "that rare commodity, an intimate drummer." And here's a bit of trivia: Motian played at Woodstock, in Arlo Guthrie's band.

Even music lovers largely unfamiliar with jazz have heard his work with pianist Bill Evans, whose trio Motian played in from 1959 to 1964. Other piano greats who availed themselves of Motian's subtly swinging sense of rhythm included Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Carla Bley, Lennie Tristano, Mose Allison, Martial Solal, Enrico Pieranunzi, and Marilyn Crispell.

ANNIVERSARIES: Blues Great R.L. Burnside Born 85 Years Ago

R.L. Burnside first recorded at age 40, remained obscure until 65, and was a legend at 75. Born on November 23, 1926 in Oxford, Mississippi, he spent most of his life in his rural native area, where he worked as a sharecropper as late as 1979, though he lived in Chicago and Memphis for short periods. His appearance in the Robert Mugge/Robert Palmer 1992 documentary movie and soundtrack album Deep Blues and his acclaimed 1994 Fat Possum album Too Bad Jim seemed to come out of nowhere to catch the attention of not only blues fans but also the underground rock crowd. But R.L. (pronounced "Rule" by his friends) had been on an Arhoolie compilation LP in 1967, and as his fame rose, several pre-Deep Blues albums reappeared with wider distribution.

Supremely Sensitive Liszt Playing

Adam Gyorgy
Carnegie Hall, NYC
November 13, 2011

"Adam Gyorgy is regarded as one of the finest Liszt players in the world," says his press bio. "I'll be the judge of that," thought the jaded critic. Well, chalk one up for truth in advertising and color me impressed.

Gyorgy started his recital with one of his trademarks, an original improvisation. He set up a strumming pattern with a drone bass over which a chiming melody floated. The improvisation broadened while staying highly tonal and melodic, somewhat reminiscent of George Winston but with exquisite dynamic gradations, delicious rubato, and touches of Keith Jarrett-like intensity when Gyorgy sometimes built up a vamp, though without Jarrett’s dissonances. It's certainly not something we're used to hearing at a classical recital nowadays, although it's exactly the sort of personalizing touch the Romantics were fond of.

From a Town Known as Oyster Bay, Long Island, Rode a Boy with a Six-Pack in His Hand

Billy Joel: Piano Man Legacy Edition (Columbia Legacy)

Billy Joel didn't exactly come out of nowhere with 1973's Piano Man -- it just seemed that way because of the deep obscurity into which his previous projects had so quickly fallen. His Rascals wanna-be band The Hassles never took off (the name does seem like kind of a jinx), his organ/drums duo Attila bombed, and then his November 1971 solo debut Cold Spring Harbor was cursed with faulty mastering that left his vocals sounding squeaky. Famously, he escaped these setbacks -- and contract problems (he was waiting for Columbia's lawyers to get him out of his old contract) -- by leaving his native New York and heading to Los Angeles, where under the pseudonym Bill Martin (his first and middle names) he worked at a piano bar, an experience he portrayed in the title track of this album, now reissued with an additional disc.

Pianist Adam Gyorgy Talks About His Upcoming Carnegie Hall Recital

Adam Gyorgy has successfully made the transition from child prodigy (accepted to the Bela Bartok Conservatory at age 12, winner of Hungary's Pianist 2000 award at 18) to mature artist. After studying with Katalin Halmagyi, and then at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest under Professors Gyorgy Nador and Balazs Reti, he has combined excellent technique with musical understanding, impressing competition judges along the way: Vienna Classics Prize in 2000, Special Prize at the 2003 San Remo International Piano Competition, and all prizes (First Prize, Grand Prize, Special Prize) at the First International Chopin Piano Competition in Budapest in 2004. When he played Carnegie Hall three years ago, CultureCatch's Ken Krimstein praised his recital. So when his Carnegie recital this Sunday, November 13, was announced, offering the opportunity to hear him in the challenging Liszt Sonata, I leapt at the chance to attend, and to discuss that program and his career with him. 

ANNIVERSARIES: Johannes Brahms's First Symphony Premiered 135 Years Ago

When Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was 20, and mostly known to audiences as a pianist, Robert Schumann basically proclaimed him the great hope of German music in an article entitled "New Paths." In those days, the general lament was that no symphonist had been able to measure up to the mighty example of Beethoven. He started composing what could have become his first symphony in 1854; he got cold feet and turned it into his Piano Concerto No. 1, which was premiered in 1859. In that same period, Brahms wrote two Serenades for orchestra -- seemingly to practice dealing with the challenges of those forces -- and his String Sextet No. 1, a fairly grand work for a chamber piece. In 1862 he sent to Clara Schumann (Robert's widow, whom he loved) an early version of the first movement of what he announced would be his First Symphony (it did not yet have its glorious introduction). A decade later, he had still not finished the symphony, the weight of expectations heavier than ever with increased fame (he had completed his popular German Requiem by the end of the 1860s). Brahms remained acutely aware of the Beethovenian standard he had to live up to. "I'll never write a symphony!" he proclaimed to conductor Hermann Levi. "You have no idea how the likes of us feel when we're always hearing a giant like that behind us."

ANNIVERSARIES: John Coltrane's 1961 Village Vanguard Sessions

John Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse!)

This set of 50-year-old recordings is a historic milestone no jazz collection should be without. The performances are presented chronologically on this 1997 four-CD compilation that finally brought together in one package material released haphazardly on four separate LPs while adding previously unreleased takes.

Coltrane was already a star when he played this November 1-5 stand with his quintet including Eric Dolphy (alto sax, bass clarinet), McCoy Tyner (piano), Reggie Workman (bass), and Elvin Jones (drums), supplemented by Jimmy Garrison (bass) and including guests Ahmed Abdul-Malik (oud), Garvin Bushell (oboe, contrabassoon), and Roy Haynes (drums). The four days captured here find Coltrane anticipating many other ideas he later expanded on before his untimely death in 1967.

October Review Roundup

Tom Waits: Bad As Me (Anti)

This starts out as Waits getting by on gestures and timbres. That's actually pretty good, since Waits is the master of such sonic legerdemain (he uses a wide variety of voices; "Talking at the Same Time" is especially striking) and the energy exuded is infectious (the weird rockabilly hybrid "Get Lost" is hilarious). One could listen to this album solely to get off on the way the guitars sound (longtime collaborator Marc Ribot and Keith Richards both shine). Halfway through, the title track offers a solid song with amusing lyrics, and it's followed by the brilliant torch song "Kiss Me." Another quiet ballad, "Last Leaf," is even better (because the lyric uses a more original image). With this being the first Waits studio album of new material in seven years, I was hoping for more in the way of songwriting, but this'll do. If you're not already a Waits fan, though, it might not convert you.

ANNIVERSARIES: Alexander Zemlinsky Born 140 Years Ago

A late-Romantic composer who occasionally worked in a more modern style, Alexander Zemlinsky (October 14, 1871 – March 15, 1942) was something of a prodigy. Anton Bruckner was among his teachers. Brahms, impressed by the Symphony in D and a quartet, recommended Zemlinsky to Simrock, Brahms's publisher and arranged a stipend for the young composer. Zemlinsky was friends with the slightly younger Arnold Schoenberg and taught him counterpoint (in which Brahms had tutored Zemlinsky); Schoenberg later married Zemlinsky's sister.

The connection to Schoenberg (who studied music with no-one else) probably contributed to the revival of Zemlinsky's music, which was largely forgotten in the decades after the Nazis drove the Jewish composer first from Germany back to his native Vienna, and then to America, where he found none of the success Schoenberg achieved in exile.

ANNIVERSARIES: Anton Bruckner Died 105 Years Ago

Despite circumstances that would make most men bitter, Anton Bruckner (Sept. 4, 1824 – Oct. 11, 1896) in his mature symphonies and choral works wrote some of the most spiritual music since Bach's. Insecure, he spent his thirties studying with the dictatorial music professor Simon Sechter, who had briefly taught Franz Schubert. Brucker didn't compose a symphony until 1863, the "Study" Symphony, which he withheld (as he did the later so-called No. 0).

In Vienna, Bruckner was considered by many to be a naïve country bumpkin; he got unfairly entangled in the bitter Brahms-Wagner debates that split the city. Bruckner's symphonies were thus the object of myopic criticism from some in the Brahms camp, including powerful critic Eduard Hanslick (however, Wagner, Liszt, and Emperor Franz Joseph I were among those who praised or supported Bruckner).