Friday, October 29, 2010

John McLaughlin, Mahavishnu at Montreaux DVD

The musical style of John McLaughlin has taken many zigs and zags since his emergence with Tony Williams and Miles Davis in the late ‘60s. The original Mahavishnu Orchestra sent guitarists, drummers, keyboardists and violin wielders to the woodshed to try and catch up. The band had such technique and fire! McLaughlin was not merely technically amazing; his rhythmic-melodic amalgam and the group concept went way beyond what anybody had done before. Then that band broke up and new Mahavishnu groups, Shakti and all kinds of permutations in his approach occurred over the next 30 years or so. But nothing was quite like that original band. It was natural for some to be disappointed with the later incarnations of the group. Nothing quite matched that first burst of flame. Yet looking back those realignments in the Mahavishnu personnel and repertoire were not nearly as big a letdown as they seemed at the time.

This brings us to a two DVD set that has been out for a bit but I am only now getting around to reviewing. I speak of Mahavishnu Orchestra Live at Montreux 1974, 1984 (Eagle Eye). First off, for a very modest price you get hours and hours of music, 234 minutes to be precise. The 1974 disk alone contains a 45 minute or so video of the band in action and another 70 plus minutes of additional music for audio only. Today we deal with that first disk. The second will be covered later.

The picture quality and sound are first rate. The 1974 group added a string quartet and several horns, mostly for orchestral texture. This was the band with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, who of course added another astoundingly proficient improvising voice to the mix. Michael Walden filled Cobham’s shoes with bravado and manages here to seem nearly as boisterous as the indefatigable Billy.

The music gives wide scope for some astounding McLaughlin soloing and so also for Mr. Ponty. The two are in great form! Musically the material consisted of new numbers the band had worked up and a few pieces from the earlier repertoire. No LP release of the time came close to giving a representative view of what the band could do. This DVD does that well and the 1974 concert has a great deal of fine moments. I was less captivated by the 1984 disk, but that is a story for later. McLaughlin fans at any rate should not hesitate to find this one. It should give you many hours of enjoyment. Anybody new to McLaughlin who hasn’t listened to Birds of Fire by the original Mahavishnu might do better to start there.

Originally posted on March 26, 2009 at

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Goldbug's "The Seven Dreams": Spacey, Fused Soundscapes

There is most definitely a trend out there, and Goldbug's The Seven Dreams (1K Recordings 016) squarely places itself in the center of it. Take the riff-rock psychedelia that comes out of Miles Davis' seventies electricity and combine it with the spaced soundscape orientation that Robert Fripp and Brian Eno pioneered. Now that doesn't mean that there are large grafts of borrowed riffs and motives from the original plants. Far from it. Goldbug make their own music and it's a goodly original kind of end result they get.

Goldbug is a studio project that centers around Eric Slick on drums (Adrian Belew), Barry Meehan on bass, Theo Travis on reeds (Soft Machine Legacy) and Tim Motzer on guitar. They aren't afraid to create textures and envelops that have electro-acoustic transformations as their basis, and they combine that with a group orientation. There are grooves, sax and guitar solos that fit sometimes fragmented lines into the overall matrix, and there are loose freeplay passages that create a mood. The objective is to make music that hits you in blocks of atmospheric sound.

They succeed in giving you a program that has a thoughtful way about it, yet has a great store of power in reserve that you can feel the presence of in various parts of the work. Perhaps next time they will unleash a bit more of that power, even if it means disturbing the brown study of the cosmically oriented listeners. For now that doesn't matter because the music is most stimulating as it is.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Grand Theft Bus Live at Salon Vert, 2005

Those who have followed my two guitar blogs know that I have been covering jambands and Creative Commons downloads from time to time. I downloaded a show off of (they have a wealth of legal downloads) several years ago and finally now have made some time to listen to it. It's a Canadian outfit, Grand Theft Bus, in performance at Salon Vert in Montreal on October 8, 2005. I have grabbed several of the band's live shows on CD-ROM and I find them interesting.

They do their own quirky songs. They have an appealing rhythm section/rhythm guitar propulsion that gives them a certain drive without a metal heaviness. And they do collective interlocking instrumental interludes (improvisations?) that are mesmerizing in a quasi-minimalistic, sometimes trance inducing way.

The Salon Vert show has good sound and the band rolls right along in a series of grooves that hit it right. The show runs for only one set but they are FLAC files.

Of the countless bands I've checked out via these kinds of downloads Grand Theft Bus are one that stays in my mind. Their originals share with REM a quirky way with a melody, though they don't sound much like them.

Check out this show by going to, then go to the Live Music Archive, click on "Browse (By Band)," then find Grand Theft Auto in the alphabetical list. You can find the show by date and click away. If you are looking for some rock that's different, hey, this is a band that has something going on, and it's free. They might not do a lot of jamming exactly, but the collective music making has an immediacy that the best live bands all seem to conjure up. And the performances are loose enough that they sound jam-like regardless.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cristian Amigo's "Kingdom of Jones" Beyond Category

Duke Ellington once said that great music is "beyond category." But if he were alive today, writing a blog on the internet, he'd be pulling his hair out. The internet and its search engines thrive on pigeonholing absolutely everything. Is it music? OK, what kind? Well that isn't always easy to put in terms of keywords. But they need that so that when somebody searches for Ugandan Traditional Tribal Music, for example, they get a ranked list of links.

Now that's fine in its own way but in the advanced worlds of modern music-making, categories that once were hard and fast seem to be breaking down. And that doesn't mean that it's all "Fusion," either.

Today's recording is a good example. Composer-conceptualist-musician Cristian Amigo has put together a program of music in his Kingdom of Jones (Innova 671) that proceeds, so to speak, from station to station, each station evoking a sound world that doesn't always easily translate into some musical category. You find contemporary improvisation, jazz and rock elements, electronics, ambient music, funk, a sort of drums 'n' bass sound, hints of electronica, hip hop inflections, a hint of world music influence, with some sampling involved, electronic collage, blues-like segments, musique concrete, new music, avant garde classical and things that combine more than one element at a time.

Cristian Amigo plays electric and acoustic guitar in parts throughout the recording, and so that's one factor that provides a point of reference. And he plays interesting things too. But the thrust of the work is contained in all the pieces and stylistic elements considered as a whole. Art imitates life, one well favored version of a world view has it. If that's so, Cristian Amigo has created the equivalent to a walk through Grand Central Station, where every imaginable sort of person may be walking by you. Would you classify the people in Grand Central Station as one sort of group? If you did, you would have to come up with generalities that are meaningless in some ways. "Travelers by train?" Mostly. But so what? I feel that way in trying to describe Kingdom of Jones in some straightforwardly ham-headed way. So I wont.

This is music. It is music that goes from point A to point B in a non-direct route through all kinds of geometric thickets. It is music that can be heard profitably many times because it is born of a complex aural orientation. It is not written out, apparently, as much as it is performed and assembled. So it is like a visual art assemblage combined with a performance piece? Not exactly.

What makes this recording worth hearing is that every piece in the puzzle somehow fits the whole; and every piece has intrinsic interest as music. There are quiet sections of dreamy contemplation. There are toe-tapping grooves, some psychedelic rock moments, sprawling but brief soundscapes, and some really interesting guitar work.

Don't expect a certain thing when you listen to this music. Take that tact and you'll be surprised and I would hope delighted with the various outcomes in any given section. Amigo makes music here that expresses a something that might not be defined in words to good advantage. It is the multiplicity of the modern experience.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Arguelles with Formanek, Rainey in "Ground Rush"

If you want to show your improvising abilities and sound to the maximum the pianoless trio of horn, bass and drums is one of the most fertile vehicles to do so. That's what tenor saxman Julian Arguelles has done on his new CD Ground Rush (Clean Feed 191). It's not just any trio partners he's gathered together though. It's Michael Formanek on acoustic bass and Tom Rainey on drums, both leaders in their own right and some sensitive and formidable ensemble voices.

They run through seven Arguelles originals and one number by the entire band. This is loose and driving postbop with nice vehicles to improvise with. Arguelles' tenor has its own trajectory. He doesn't sound like anybody much, though the conceptual approach has something in common with Ornette Coleman (and since Ornette's influence has been enormous, that can be said of many), but not the sound. Julian is very fluid and poised.

Michael Formanek digs in for this session and makes syzygy-like connections with his fellow bandmates. He is in indispensable part of the proceedings and sounds great at all times. Tom Rainey plays drums in ways that play up an accompanying role in the best sense. He's there in creative ways whether it is a free-form phrase or a swinging quietude, or not-so-quiet too.

All told, the three give out with a very good performance indeed. It should make them proud. The music impresses me, OK? For the less bombastic side of contemporary jazz with no signs of anemia, you would do well to hear this one.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Soft Machine Legacy Shines On with "Live Adventures"

The music world mourned the passing of Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper fairly recently. Among other things, of course, they were cornerstone members of Soft Machine and the later Soft Machine Legacy.

The good news is that the Legacy have steeled themselves with determination in the face of these losses and have generated a new lineup. Drummer John Marshall and guitarist John Etheridge remain. They are joined, logically enough, by the "other" Softs bass player, Roy Babbington, and a younger British saxophonist, Theo Travis.

The new Live Adventures CD (MoonJune 36) gives happy testimony to the continued vibrancy of the group. Of course when half the band is lost, one might expect the collective chemistry to alter significantly. Surprisingly that is less the case than might be expected. Theo Travis does not sound like Elton Dean, surely, but he fills the gap with his own twists and turns. Babbington is an old Softie and knows what to do.

With a program of band originals past and present, one part of the Soft's true legacy remains out front: they do interesting songs and they set their conceptual sites somewhere beyond fusion and into their own zone. This is always what the Softs do so well. And the Legacy band continues to evolve and grow, as a living, breathing entity and not a reunion band bent on recreating the past. They sound like themselves in the framework of NOW and they play outside of the conformed mainstream of electric jazz. For this reason alone the new Legacy album is a very good listen. But then again John Etheridge plays some fine guitar too and John Marshall is always a subtly appropriate player no matter what groove or kicking phrases he is a part of.

There's no decline here. They are fully into their best musical cups and drink heartily from them. Cheers then. Recommended!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Antibalas' Brooklyn Afrobeat Collective Reissue "Who is This America?"

When the Brooklyn-based 17-piece Afrobeat group Antibalas first released their third album Who is This America? (Ropeadope AC 5059) in 2004, the climate here in the US was not especially open for a Fela Kuti sort of political critique of what was happening with the Bush administration and in general. Now that Afrobeat and Fela Kuti are both getting more recognition (partly due to the Broadway musical about Fela that has been garnering praise), it may be that the time is ripe for the reissue of the album. The political climate has changed (?) as well, so it's message is no longer a voice in the wilderness sort of thing.

This past August the reissue came about. The new edition of the CD has an extra unreleased track. Aside from the political commentary the album contains (which I will leave listeners to sort out and to provide their own opinions) this is a very good Afrobeat outfit giving out with the James-Brown-meets-Africa style that is pretty wonderful to my mind. Horns riff, the guitar-centered rhythm section cooks its funk up African style with percussion and drums serving up a fat groove that you expect from this music. Vocals are well done.

Not every cut is a gem, but you get 75 minutes of it, so who can complain? Get some Fela if you don't have any. Get this one too. You'll be set up with some prime movers.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Guitarist Mary Halvorson and Her New "Saturn Sings" Recording

Some artists get a certain amount of buzz out there at a certain point in their careers. Guitarist Mary Halvorson is one of them right now. She's written about, lands some prominent gigs and comes to the fore with her latest CD Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-013).

The album pits Halvorson and her regular trio (with Ches Smith on drums and John Hebert, bass) augmented by Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto, the latter of whom has been generating some buzz himself.

It's ten Halvorson compositions with an inside-outside approach put together for the augmented band. Heads and tonality are related to contemporary jazz trends with some quirks; solos and the rhythm section bring in the free aspects of the music to a greater or lesser degree.

There are an interesting series of numbers here and Mary Halvorson shows in her solo style what all the talk is about. She is not one for 32nd-note runs. What she does do is combine note clusters-chords with loping or angular line work and somewhat restrained episodes of skronk outness. Her treatment of chording (with or without what sounds like the whammy) gives her a distinctive sound. Her tone is usually more in the straight-ahead zone than in one of a rock-inflected effects-orientation, though there are moments of shred-tone cranked in for short intervals here and there. To hear her comp is to hear something singular.

Finlayson and Irabagon make for sympathetic and simpatico fellow front liners. They have things to say and they say them.

What you end up with is a convincing set of modern music that should appeal to jazz fanciers and guitar students out there. It is good evidence as to why the buzz about Mary isn't just talk.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Guitarist Pierre Dorge with John Tchicai and Lou Grassi in Bright Green

What is it about the most modern jazz that puts some people off? I was watching a sit com the other night and one of the characters said, "Jazz is the sea urchin of music," which implied that it was something no one wanted to "eat." Not true!

Preparation is important. Getting used to the sounds and structures involved is a second factor. Free improvisation or post-bop assumes a certain familiarity with what went before. At least it helps to understand what the music is an extension and commentary upon. Second, “new” jazz (some of it 50 years old by now) can use harsher textures and rhythms that are not easy assimilated by someone used to a four-square overtly stated beat. There can be a cacophony that remains highly expressive but perhaps a little disconcerting if you are not used to it.

Today’s CD has a fully modern, freely articulated bent, yet it seems to me that it might be easier for the novice to grasp than some recordings. We have two Danish master improvisers, saxophonist John Tchicai and guitarist Pierre Dorge joining with US drummer Lou Grassi in a tuneful set that has a fairly laid-back approach, accessible rhythmic pulses much of the time and a musical logic that shouldn’t be hard to grasp. Hope is Bright Green Up North (CIMP) has a front line that has played together for quite a while, mostly in Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra (mentioned in an earlier blog page). They both go their own way stylistically. There’s originality and imagination in everything they do. Lou Grassi effectively anchors their melodic and improvisatory journeys with solid drumming. What’s interesting to me is that while most people should find this disk easy to understand, the group is in no way watering down its music for wider acceptance. Tchicai and Dorge are doing some very nice things here. The CIMP recording can be found on the website listed in the links column.

Originally posted on March 23, 2009, at

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mayhem Circus Electric: Avant Groove from NHIC

The NHIC (New Haven Improvisers Collective) have been making their own brand of avant jazz for some time now. It's adventurous fare with a kind of territory band approach to the avant that is healthy and goes its own way. The group as a whole varies in terms of its members and the degree to which material is worked out on any given occasion.

Today's CD is by an NHIC offshoot with a more electric bent than the NHIC as a whole. It's a seven-man outfit that includes two guitars (one of them Bob Gorry, NHIC founder), sax, keys, bass guitar, bass clarinet and drums. Mayhem Circus Electric is what they call themselves and Lubricity (NHIC 005)is the title of the disk.

There are eleven jam-like vehicles, which take something from the electric Miles Davis concept on one hand, and to my ears, the Captain Beefheart ensemble style of his classic period.

So in other words there is a loose avant rock-funk feel with multiple collective solo work and there is also some of the jagged Beefheart angularity.

These are mere stepping-off points. Mayhem has a local DIY sensibility that gives the group (like the parent NHIC) a distinctive lack of the expected licks and textures that you might hear in the main currents of avant-dom. Collective is the operative concept in play on these pieces. No one much solos in the singular sense yet everyone is soloing throughout.

Lubricity has conceptual flair and group dynamic heft. And they seem to be enjoying every moment of the experience too. I say bravo to all that!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Robert Branch and His Fusion Pyrotechnics

I'll be the first to admit that Fusion can have its excesses and banalities. There are formulas to fall back upon, instrumental idols to imitate and so forth. In that it is prey to the perils of just about any music that strives for some form of popularity, which includes most of the music being made today.

So when new faces come on the scene, many times they exist as the influenced, rather than a potential influence or at least an original of some sort.

Robert Branch is a new guitarist to me. His CD Courage to Be (self released, no release number) puts him firmly in the instrumental fusion camp. Minneapolis serves as his home base.

Beyond those basics there is the music. Sometimes his sound has a definite Allan Holdsworth violin-like singing to it; sometimes his originals reference Pat Metheny, and no doubt there are other influences. The point is what he does with all of it and the first answer is that he seems to be carving out a rock-based style that could be traveling toward a more original stance.

He has some of the machine-gun fire technique that many players in this realm have developed. What's interesting to me is what phrases he plays. He goes with rock licks and builds outward from them. How much outward he will build the future will reveal. For now this is a very accomplished, sophisticated effort that has plenty to like about it.

Keep going Robert Branch. We'll be listening (if the creek doesn't rise in the meantime!)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Marty Regan's "Forest Whispers" for Japanese Instruments

As an American who composes music for traditional Japanese instruments, Marty Regan stands on his own turf. The recent Forest Whispers CD (Navona 5931) gives you a cross-section of some select works of his from the past decade. There's a piece for shakuhachi and koto, for shamisen and koto, for shamisen and ko-tsuzumi and then those for a more eclectic instrumentation of shakuhachi and piano trio, and Shakuhachi and cello.

The pieces are excellently performed. Those in the most traditional mode are uncannily idiomatic at times. They are firmly in the tradition. Then there are other pieces, the ones that combine instruments of east and west, that take a more hybrid orientation. The classical music of the two traditions form a meld on the latter pieces to some extent, and to me they are the most interesting.

The album is a delight to the ears throughout. Marty Regan composes music that has a timeless quality. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Le Trio Joubran, "A l'ombre des mots"

For their third release the exceptionally creative oud trio Le Trio Joubran turn to a live setting and a tribute to poet Mahmoud Darwich (World Village 479036). It's the trio joined by a versatile and sensitive percussion exponent as in the last CD, plus long segments of Mahmoud Darwich reciting his poetry in Arabic, alternating with or accompanied by the trio. Many of the musical numbers have appeared on the two previous albums, but the live situation and the strong feeling engendered by the tribute bring out a shade more vivacity and strength to the renditions.

A bonus DVD gives you that same concert program with the accompanying video images of the group and Mr. Darwich. If you do not know Arabic (like me) there are French subtitles translating the poems as they are recited. The DVD gives you the entire concert experience.

The music once again is on the highest levels. There is a fair amount of the recitation as well however, and that can be a drawback if you do not understand it. Evidently it is a very moving tribute to the poet, who appears to have passed away sometime before this concert was performed.

Regardless A l'ombre des mots (The Shadow of the Words) gives further opportunities to appreciate the trio as extraordinary artists. For that I am certainly glad to have this one to hear again. As a first exposure to the ensemble, it might be better to start with Majaz (see previous blog entry). Either way, there is a depth to their music that is profound and moving.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Land of Talk Returns with "Cloak and Cipher"

Land of Talk has a way about them that makes me appreciate what they are doing. Their newest album Cloak and Cipher (Saddle Creek) finds them continuing along the lines of their previous ones, which is a good thing. We're talking about an indie rock band from Montreal. Elizabeth Powell sings the lead vocals and she is someone that can take over where Chrissie Hynde left off. Elizabeth has style and projects a kind of uncertainty about life that I like. And the band (including Elizabeth) has a post-Sonic Youth way. They seem to be tuning their guitars in a non-standard way, at least the rhythm guitar, and it gives them some nice drone-chord sounds. They have an edge and are nevertheless tuneful. That's cool with me.

Cloak and Cipher continues the underground momentum they have underway with more strong songs and the band sound in its full glory. They are in their fourth year as a band and stronger than ever. If you like some lyricism with definite drive, I think you'd be well served by Cloak and Cipher. I'm routing for them!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Commitment: The Compete Recordings 1981 / 1983

Based on the No Business release (NB CD 14-15) of the complete 1981-1983 recordings of the avant jazz group Commitment, I realize I missed out on a very distinctive conflagration the first time around. The 2-CD set includes their studio date of late 1980 and a live appearance from 1983 in Germany (the latter unreleased before).

The band had an interesting aural presence partially due to it's not entirely standard instrumentation: reeds (Will Connell, Jr.), violin (Jason Kao Hwang), acoustic bass (William Parker) and drums (Zen Matsuura). The sound is greatly abetted by William Parker's enhanced sound staging, especially on the live date. He's out front throughout and plays ensemble passages when not engaged in the flowing free bass anchorage for which is has become renowned.

The studio date takes up much of the first disk and has less expansive, more compact improvisations. The live date stretches out more and has the advantage of two years of the band's history under wraps. They seem more attuned to one another and the expanded time frame lets them flow to and from each interlocking arranged-improvised musical cell at a more leisurely and considered pace.

It's both individually and as a ensemble, especially the latter, that they distinguish themselves. The sound texture of the group in full sail is dramatically powerful and nuanced. The players as individuals have well developed musical personalities. Parker is assertive and sound-color oriented, a moving force and a direction taker throughout. Matsuura has a tumbling drumming style that has energy and freedom. Connell can and does catalyse the proceedings with his energy travels on flute, alto and bass clarinet. Hwang's violin is sharply cutting when it needs to be and blends well with the melodic principals when engaged in ensemble improvisation or pre-worked line weaving.

Having the studio and the live date on two CDs furnishes for you a kind of mini-retrospective that shows the band's initial potential and its realization on two occasions. If only they stayed together even longer, they might have accomplished even more in the improvisatory realm. For a relatively brief moment in the '80s they showed themselves as one of the most important improvisatory ensembles of the era. You can hear why on these sides.

Friday, October 8, 2010

H2? OK! "Flights: Volume One"

H2 is Mike Herriott on flugelhorn and Sean Harkness on the guitar. They form a potent duo on their first release Flights: Volume One (no label listed). They are joined by bass and drums on four numbers and trombonist Mark Miller on one; the rest (five more) are pure duets.

First of all they have a sound, both individually and collectively, that is distinctive. Harkness gets a rich, full sound with the electric and what sounds like a touch of chorus. Herriott gets a warm, mellow and burnished tone on his flugel, a little like Kenny Wheeler in that sense. Sean's playing is lucid and nicely projecting through well-chosen lines and particularly effective harmonic voicings; Herriott plays with a laid back, cool demeanor, but he can get some fire going too. The song material is completely comprised of originals. Eight are by Harkness, two by Herriott.

The duets can be ravishingly beautiful and have that extra something to them that gives you pause. There are changes that work well and avoid the hackneyed; melody figures that stand out; improvising that fits each piece well. The numbers with rhythm vary from some up samba to rock-inspired funk. Nothing here is "smooth" in that sort of watered-down sense that term implies to me. There is very good musicality all the way through the disk. I like the duets best because they give the two a chance to interact without a safety net, but it all shows some definite individuality.

Guitarists take note (and those of the wind persuasion as well). Here are two cats that are well worth checking out. I hope they continue on from this auspicious beginning and go on to grow and evolve together as a team.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Azure Ray's New One Gives You Music to Dream On

Azure Ray do a dreamy kind of indie pop-rock. It's two female singers with lovely voices. Their new Drawing Down the Moon (Saddle Creek 104) invites you to listen to their 12 originals, all of which have a certain ring to them.

They harmonize well together, almost like a modern day female Everly Brothers in the natural fit of their voices. Don't expect "Wake Up Suzie" though; this music has the "lost-in-a-long dark-tunnel and follow-the-siren-voices" feel to it. "Make Your Heart" has a wall-of-sound fullness to it that reminds me vaguely of things I've liked but it's their own thing, modal, drone-ish.

Azure Ray appeal directly with straightforward songs and mellow arrangements. You want to chill, this will do it.

Here's a link to a free download of their new single:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Brad Hoyt's Music for Harp Guitar and Piano

The harp guitar, judging from surviving instruments and its appearance in the catalogs and brochures of guitar manufacturers of the era, was not an especially unusual thing to find among the instruments of the American homefront in the years around the turn of the last century and some time afterwards. By placing the harp strings semi-crosswise and building the harp resonating chamber to jut outwards at and angle from the guitar neck, both the six strings of the acoustic guitar and the multiple strings of the hammer dulcimer type harp could be accommodated.

Brad Hoyt has made quite an interesting album of duets with himself playing the piano, ten different artists appearing on the harp guitar, and a final piece where Brad plays both the piano and the harp guitar.

Together Alone (Harp Guitar Music 009) is the result. It's a very interesting disk. The music sometimes has the mellow limpid ambiance of new age without the vapidity. Pieces range from country- and folk-like strains to those with a little of the jazz element, from reggae to a more-or-less classical chamber stance. And everything in between, I might add. It shows off the sound of the harp guitar in ways that have musical substance and gives you plenty to hear and appreciate.

This may be off the beaten track but after hearing it a few times you might find yourself looking around for an instrument. And the listening is quite pleasurable.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Awakenings: New American Chamber Music for Guitar

The present volume exemplifies the diverse, multi-stylistic musical world we currently inhabit. Awakenings: New American Chamber Music for Guitar (Naxos 8.559650) centers around three modern classical works written in the last decade. The styles covered are of a widely contrasting sort.

Aaron Jay Kernis's "Two Awakenings and a Double Lullaby," written for soprano, guitar, violin and piano, combines an advanced harmonic standpoint with both rhapsodic lyricism and echoes of the post-serialist past. Kernis brings together the appealingly sensuous sound of the ensemble with poetic texts about the innocence and wonder of a child's first awakenings into the world. The second half of the work evokes the "putting-to-sleep" side of parenting by giving voice to "calling forth the angelic watch," typically a part of traditional Euro-American lullabies.

Jorge Liderman's "Aged Tunes" contrasts with a rhythmically lively piece for string quartet and classical guitar. This one has some interesting guitar parts and a neo-classical charm. The sound of the quartet with solo guitar has such presence you wish more had been done with this sort of texture since the days of Boccherini. As it is we have this piece and it stands out as a good example of inventive writing that is modern and directly communicating at the same time.

The final piece brings in a full guitar ensemble, both electric and classical guitars in a very interesting sort of post-minimalist confluence. Steven Mackey's "Measures of Turbulence" creates gong-like sonorances through ingenious uses of ensemble harmonics and some striking classical guitar ensemble passages that contrast vividly with the electric scoring. It is most definitely a piece of memorable music. Mackay takes on where Fripp's League of Crafty Guitarists leaves off. Ostinatos, chordal and multi-voiced writing immerse the listener in a fascinating ever-shifting soundscape. This work alone would be worth having even if the other two works were not interesting as well, which they are.

Performances and recording quality are both excellent. David Tannenbaum plays the guitar parts on the first two works and he sounds quite good. He conducts the San Francisco Conservatory Guitar Ensemble for the Mackey work and the players shine forth nicely.

The program has a satisfying flow to it and will most certainly be interesting to those who want to experience contrasting compositional approaches to the contemporary concert guitar both as a solo and an ensemble instrument. Recommended.