How and when, according to what clock or ordination, is the gift given? The other day I was in a group clinic trying to help a friend through a surgical ordeal, and all across the space surgeons were at work on bodies immobilized in a warren of cubicles. Usually the background music there is easy classic rock but that day a jazz station was the luck of the draw, incompletely audible through the working clatter, but I could hear Clifford Brown being brilliant over the top of it—too bad my friend wasn’t into jazz: it might have helped her—but even so the place and time felt fragmented and dismembered. Then it was John Coltrane on his devotional ballad Dear Lord, but even a few notes of that sound were enough not so much to cathedral the rattling clinic but restore an integrated human harmony to it and afford a place for the human soul even as human bodies were being piecemealed. Well, of course, John Coltrane: who else? But not a whole show’s worth—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, West 52nd St. time—just a few relative rarities, and a boy in a boat and a barque on the ocean, and Sidney DeParis with the Paradise Orchestra and a brilliant new recording of Lutoslawski’s piano concerto performed by its original dedicatee. And some more John Coltrane, who came and went and hasn’t left us yet, and Kamasi Washington, who has picked up the torch and is waving it afresh, and the eleven-year old piano prodigy Joey Alexander showing a fresh face of the unexpectable on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, never letting you hear how small his hands are and somehow indicating emotions and experience he can’t have had time for yet. Sometimes it’s enough to listen in and witness the wonderment, while waiting for the next visit and a chance to join in, yourself.
American Pastorale is fine with me. There’s some of Aaron Copland’s music that can own me with an opening phrase—his music for Our Town, for instance—and when I listen to Maria Schneider’s widely and highly praised CD The Thompson Fields, topping most critics’ ten-best lists for 2015, I respond easily to its wealth of open-throated melody and open-hearted sentiment, but after awhile it starts sounding a lot like good-quality generic film music to me. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I like some of John Williams’ scores too. But after playing Schneider’s title composition I felt like chasing it with the music of another lady with a big band, and it’s hard not to find something larger and more multifarious in Carla Bley. Later in the show—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Local 802 Roseland Ballroom time—there’s more contemporary large ensemble music by Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride’s virtuoso big band and, yes, The Lincoln Center guys bringing it back alive from Cuba, but what I’ll confess to liking best this week is the amazing Barbara Hannigan—and she’s amazing even when she isn’t doing something provocative costume-wise—singing her way through Ophelia’s vocabulary from that Shakespeare play in Hans Abrahamsen’s not-too-long composition Let Me Tell You, which sounds like an instant classic to me. Then there’s the Irish-American Pastorale of Aoife O’Donovan, against whose pristine, subtly uninterfered-with voice I have no defenses, unless it’s a brief interruption from Scriabin, and that’s all folks. Next week, I hope, no more bronchitis, and the curmudgeon consigned to the cellar.
Yeah, I’m not sure about the photo either, but that’s how this week’s Updoc starts off—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Lincoln Center Birdland time—with Charles Lloyd and Maurice Ravel: a set composed of three tracks from Lloyd’s new, largely countrified gospel record called I Long to See You featuring a band twanged up not only by Bill Frisell but Greg Leisz on pedal-steel. He calls them The Marvels, and I dare you not to like it. I double dare you. Interspersing that are two orchestral works by Ravel as conducted by Pierre Boulez: pellucid perfection and hail and not quite farewell. Never fear: neither one of them is Bolero. For the rest of the show I made some picks from other people’s 10-best jazz lists, so that most of it doesn’t really sound like one of my shows; which might be interesting. I say a few equivocal things about some of the playing on the show, but I won’t spill it here; so you’ll have to tune in to find out, if that’s the sort of thing you like. And awaaay we go . . .
That Paul Bley and Pierre Boulez died within two days of each other (and another large, much younger B, David Bowie, five days further on) is pure happenstance, of course, though the family resemblance is prominent: none of these guys had much appetite for musical complacency, for music as a rehearsal of the already known (except in Boulez’s case, appropriately, as a conductor). I don’t like doing all these dead-guy shows, but I tend to feel that attention must be paid—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Carnegie Hall and Village Vanguard time—with the long Paul Bley set staring with his influential solo all All the Things You Are with Sonny and Hawk and the obligatory Ida Lupino, then moving on to cover some of the territory he visited while skating on the other side of the harmonic ice. Boulez is represented by the first movement of Pli Selon Pli, which I’m coming around to thinking is his greatest masterpiece, and by his signature conductions of Debussy, Bartok, and for a finish his unbeatable performance of Mahler’s elegiac Adagietto. The clarity, transparency, and finesse are unmistakably his, and theirs. Two musicians thinking forward, always forward, and finding sounds that rose to meet them. Meet them here for a couple of hours and see what you think.
The New Yorker’s classical music critic Alex Ross wrote an interesting blog post called Listening to Star Wars—Google it up and check it out—which among other things fills in the backstory to John Williams’ scores for the films. The echoes of Holst’s Mars music from The Planets was obvious in the Empire and Vader music, of course, but I wasn’t aware that the Star Wars main theme was a variation on Erich Korngold’s score for the 1942 film Kings Row—the one in which Ronald Reagan asked “Where’s the rest of me?” Ross also pointed out some battle music in the new movie that riffs on bits of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and I thought all that interesting enough to put on this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8 PM and noon next Tuesday, Times Square time—but then, really, the primary root of Williams’ Lucas music is sunk in the earth of Richard Wagner, leitmotifs and all, so why not play Lorin Maazel’s sensational orchestral suite The Ring Without Words so we can all lie back, enter Wagner’s overwhelming soundworld, have a sonogasm and make up our own movies in our heads? And what better way to introduce it and lay out the thematic material than via one of the greatest comedy recordings of all time, Anna Russell’s ‘explication’ of Wagner’s Ring Cycle? It sounded like radio heaven to me, but then two major dudes, Paul Bley and Pierre Boulez, left town and it was too late to put something together in their memory this week. Alas: regrets, Valkyries, Bugs and Elmer in What’s Opera Doc, and Siegfried’s Funeral Music will have to do till next time. Hail and farewell, heroes, and if you pass through Valhalla may you enjoy the scenery and move on.
What better way to ring in the new year than by programming a rerun on Friday January 1, 2016, at 8PM and noon the following Tuesday, Brooklyn Dodgers Timezone time? Well, on the other hand, it’s a mostly Duke Ellington show, and he’s got it good and that ain’t bad. Also onboard are selections from Marcus Roberts’ two-CD suite Romance, Swing, and the Blues, played by the dozen members of his Modern Jazz Generation, half students and half young lions, with tenorist Stephen Riley as featured soloist, helping nod Duke a fond and appreciative and by no means subservient hello. After that Miguel Zenón’s big band survives yet another sophisticated cloud of Ellingtonia and then we see how Cecil Taylor’s obsessively structured units fare in the arena. Finally a youngster name of Bach provides a Partita for a few pianists to try their hand at until an oldster name of Gould deploys enough absurdist virtuosity to make me laugh out loud almost every time. With Kip Hanrahan for the finish we can face the year ahead feeling fine about the prospects: so I hope for and wish us all.
If not for the stray mention of 2014 in one of my inter-tune announcements, I probably could have slid this show past you as this year’s Christmas gift—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, overheated New York “winter” time—without you catching me, but there it is and I left it in. The music’s the same—great stuff, assuredly: Bach, Mozart, Soeur Marie Keyrouz, Sam Cooke and other luminaries, though how come no Lester Bowie with the church bells?—and my throttled anguish over the bloody chaos of our present world’s the same, though there’s no mention of recent additions to it in Paris—where a close friend of mine got some paint in his eye, got all swollen up and so didn’t use his free ticket to the Bataclan that night—and San Bernardino, not to mention all over the Eastern Exotic Regions; but I trust the music to effectively reaccomplish such lifting and healing work as it can achieve, under the circumstances. Meanwhile—a purely personal matter—I’m trying to figure out if I sound a trifle drunk or only sleepy while stumbling over a foreign word or two, or over the small print of an artist’s name, or which button to push to find the right bit of info . . . Maybe I sound like that all the time. I listened a second time and it sounded pretty much all right. If you have a take on it, or a diagnosis, please send it to the King of Siam, in memory of Boris Yeltsin, and enjoy the show.
Solo piano, yes, but not for the whole two hours of this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Steinway Piano Factory time. Temptations I couldn’t resist: two tracks from Fred Hersch’s new solo album—his tenth, believe it or not—and then Brad Mehldau from his still fairly new 4-CD set of solo piano concerts performed over the past ten years, and since I picked his version of a Radiohead tune, why not follow it with original, and then, after something in French, a bit of Art Tatum to pull the house down. Can’t do better than follow Tatum with Bach, in this case about a third of the prodigal Igor Levit’s new recording of The Goldberg Variations, after which we break form with Sonny Rollins’ complete set of The Alfie Variations. And so on for a couple of entertaining hours. And have you heard Katie Bull’s new record? There’s a long piece of it toward the end, so be there if you like.
How many jazz-rock fusion groups of the 70s and 80s can you stand to listen to today? I can wait while you’re thinking . . . Well anyway, Joe Zawinul, who also said he wasn’t afraid of Beethoven, always said that Weather report wasn’t ‘fusing’ anything, just playing its collective ass off. Obviously they were a cut above the rest. Now we’ve got a four-CD set of soi-disant ‘legendary’ live performances recorded off the mixing board between 1978 and 1981, featuring the band with Jaco Pastorious and Peter Erskine, on some cuts Bobby Thomas Jr. On this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8 PM and noon next Tuesday, Birdland time—I followed my druthers and pulled three medium-long tracks that seemed to feature the most vociferous and supercharged Wayne Shorter solos. The show also features Arturo O’Farrill’s four-movement big-band Cuban-American suite, the complex writing of which seems to have pressured new exertions from its featured soloist, the usually indomitable Rudresh Mahanthappa. For relief there’s Schubert’s last String Quartet, which is supposed to be in G Major even though intimations of the composer’s early death drench the opening movement in the minor mode and nettle the way with tremolos and disjunctions. The swing to daylight in the later movements is heroically achieved, after which there’s more Reporting of the Weather, ending with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Cecile McLorin Salvant wishing you a merry little Christmas when I still have a few Hanukkah candles left to burn. Light the light you’ve got and drop in when you’ve got a minute.
Well this is different. I was away for a few days, on an island out West, deprived of music and connection, so when I came back without a show I asked our leader Bob Rogers to pick an oldie for me for this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, back on East Coast time—and he pulled one up from almost three years ago featuring two Fifth Symphonies, some Pops and Duke, some Blossom Dearie and so on. Hmm. The Sibelius is Karajan’s early outing with the Philharmonia Orchestra, fine by me, stellar even; but the Mahler is by Pierre Boulez and the Viennas, and though I still like that, nowadays I’d plunk for Abbado with the Lucerne orchestra, something I aired about a year ago I think. But let’s see, or listen: the Sibelius is almost blindingly radiant, the Mahler doomstruck and lurching toward triumph, and how much younger and less baritonal will I sound on the intros? I was still naming my shows back then, and called this one Double Pumper Nickel, which sounds promising. I might have been in a good mood. Meet me at the line shack when it’s over, unarmed, and tell me what you think.