Is this the least artful photo-mashup I’ve ever done? Most likely, but hey, it’s about the music. Chico Hamilton lived to be 92, great for anyone and terrific for a drummer, and Britten and Shostakovich started composing a lot like each other when they entered old age in declining health. For instance when you listen to Britten’s Third and last String Quartet and Shosta’s Twelfth of fifteen one at a time, you might think, especially with the Britten, that it almost might have been written by the other man. But if you hear them on the same show, even when separated by a palate-cleanser of other music—as you can on this week’s Updoc, Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Moscow-on-the-Hudson time—the illusion vanishes. Britten is brilliant and ingenious, Shostakovich a juggernaut of expressive power. And Chico Hamilton was a lot more than the light-touch-cool-jazz drummer of the mainstream obituaries, as a couple of cuts featuring his Charles Lloyd/Gabor Szabo band make perfectly clear. Also on board: Ingram Marshall, Debussy, and another great musician recently departed, Tabu Ley Rocherau, of the Congo, singing of Kassoule, which might also be Cassoulet. “I leetle composer,” Dmitri told Ben after looking over one of his scores, “you beeg composer.” Not so easy. Anyway, if you’ve ever been moved by these guys’ music, or if you’d like to be, this show won’t hurt you. Wow, bad pix, and now the worst sales pitch ever. Tune in anyway, if you can.
Updoc—Friday at 8PM, noon next Tuesday—usually shows up late for anniversaries, and this year’s no exception. Last week’s show fell on November 22 and could have celebrated Benjamin Britten’s centenary or remembered JFK’s fifty-year-old death, the day my country began to crash and burn, with for instance Booker Ervin’s great lament A Day to Mourn. Instead there was Bach on mandolin, new releases, and the always apt Thelonious Monk. A day after that, the 50th anniversary edition of a well-loved British telly show was overwrought, over-effectsy, overblown, and in typical Time Lord fashion, unexpectedly moving by the end. So this week Updoc indulges in its own bit of time travel, all the way back a week, to visit Great Britten, including shades of requiem and illumination and, for a finish, a last dash of the melodic monumental opera in which Peter Grimes sinks his boat and self while the seaside people sing about themselves and choose to see nothing, as the world’s two most quietly devastating drum thumps nail the ending down. Britten makes some people anxious and equivocal: was he one of the great 20th century composers or not? Updoc has stopped asking, and has also found its two hours’ airtime insufficient for due tribute. Britten’s music is Tardic: bigger on the inside than the outside. Jammy dodgers, jelly babies or fish fingers and custard: bring what you have and come on in.
Free picture of a Trans-Dniestrian 50 ruble note to anyone who can puzzle out the thematic continuity of this week’s Updoc show of mostly new releases—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Hudson River Time. Chris Thile plays Bach on a mandolin that sounds like an instrument Bach might have played himself; we remember John Tavener via a setting of William Blake and play a few pieces from Matthew Shipp’s stunning new solo album Piano Sutras; Anne-Sofie von Otter sings French songs awfully well for a non-French otter while Gretchen Parlato sings Herbie Hancock, and even I can’t figure out how and if it fits together. Thelonious Monk probably supplies the best advice, in three installments: Abide With Me, Well You Needn’t, and Don’t Blame Me.
I remember going to the Top of the Gate one Sunday or Monday night in the ‘70s and waiting for the band to come in. When they did, Billy Higgins found that all the club was providing in the way of a drumset was a bass drum with no pedal, a 12×8 hanging tom-tom, and one cymbal stand. Fortunately Higgins had brought a cymbal. The band was a quintet or a sextet, and without apparent special effort, Billy Higgins provided it with a wealth of buoyant, ebullient swing throughout the two sets I stayed for. Nothing was missing. I don’t think he even kicked the bass drum for punctuation. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea that this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Village Gate time—is a Billy Higgins show, because I’m mostly indulging, as a chill infests the air with winter, in what may be the last of my autumnal Brahms obsession, but you’ll probably enjoy hearing Higgins play a series of duets with Charles Lloyd. Nasheet Waits posted a piece listing ten favorite Higgins cuts on Mosaic Records’ website and you’ll probably enjoy that too. Smiling Billy, Mr. Joy. I used to see you most often with Lee Morgan and Jackie McLean’s band, and when, at the age of fifteen, I ran into you sitting in at a tiny Village joint, you were friendly to the kid who gushed about how wonderful your playing was. My feeling and appreciation of what you had and gave freely have only deepened since.
Ever notice how, on American news shows, when talking heads refer to the Guardian they have to say “the Guardian newspaper”, I guess because referring to just “the Guardian” sounds passing strange over here, as if some great spook were being invoked. Well it was the jazz columnist of the Guardian—John Fordham, the human—who hipped me to the reissue of Paul Bley’s ‘70s and ‘80s albums for Soul Note and I thought Yes, let’s start this week’s show with an urgent version of Ornette Coleman’s When Will the Blues Leave? the question, the tune, featuring Bley, John Scofield, Steve Swallow and Barry Altschul live from New York, the city, in 1985, the year. Then the obligatory Sonny Meets Hawk version of All the Things You Are with Rollins’ bizarre solo and Bley’s piano lesson for a generation of young musicians. Outer partials! Bluesy recursions! Coleman Hawkins! Okay, so then Bley live with Ornette’s band at the Hillcrest in LA, 1958, and the fascinating sense you get about how much work Ornette must have put in to become who he was when he got to New York a year later with the whole thing worked out. And it’s autumn and I can’t stop listening to Brahms, so I put the Third Symphony on, with Klemperer and the Philharmonia, the orchestra. And there’s more, on Updoc, the show, on taintradio.org, not quite the station, Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, you know what I mean, Eastern Standard Time time.
This week’s Updoc, Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday (East Coasting Time), returns to the music of the mighty Ronald Shannon Jackson in the aftermath of his recent departure at the age of 73, with samples from his band the Decoding Society, solo pieces combining drums and the vernacular poetry of Sterling A. Brown, and episodes from Shannon’s tenure with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. After so much airborne electricity atop the unstoppable drive of Jackson’s chthonic tembloring it seemed sensible, later in the show, to take refuge in the autumnal shade of Johannes Brahms’ late-period music for a trio of clarinet, cello and piano. Brahms had retired from composing at the age of fifty-seven when that black woodwind set him alight for a few last outings with his muse; after which I couldn’t let Hallowe’en fade away without hearing Philly Joe Jones do the Lugosi on his Blues for Dracula. They are the children of the night. What beautiful music they made.
Look at that, I zazzed up a John Zorn cover shot. This is gonna be one edgy, pushy, po-mo show. Twenty five minutes of Zorn’s Spillane and what else? Well, how about Brahms’ first Piano Concerto as played by that hound of all downtowns, Artur Rubinstein? Actually, first off I put the show together—Updoc, Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Carnegie Hall Lobby Time—with Clifford Curzon’s classic performance before deciding that Rubinstein, despite or because of his exaggerated rubato, was warmer and more Brahmsian; but mainly I marvelled at what kind of genius it might take to write music of such expressive might when still in your early twenties. We tend to think that Brahms was born middle-aged with a prenatal beard, but the young man in love with Robert Schumann’s wife, whose maelstrom of a opening theme probably depicts her husband’s suicidal dive into the Rhine, was one of the most tumultuous of all romantics. He was trying to write it as a symphony and didn’t feel up to it, though Beethoven’s ghost may have envied him that towering opener. After that the screams and splatters of Zorn’s Spillane are light entertainment, though Zorn’s torn alto blues over minor-key strings toward the end of the piece will surely zap your heart. Is there other stuff on the show? Sure, it takes two hours and includes the first Gulf War and Pee Wee Russell’s college concert. Sometimes it takes a pickled man to look like a pickle and play such sozzled clarinet. Bring a jar.
The playlist for this week’s Updoc—8PM Friday and noon next Tuesday, Brooklyn Quiztime—does not particularly compute. Okay, two long cuts from the new Carla Bley record of Trios with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard, and two more from the old Bill Evans all-star quintet record Interplay: no problem, they’re good. So is Steve Kuhn, and he gets two tunes in, while Pee Wee Russell gets four. Two orchestral pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis, one soft and one loud, plus a violin concerto by Magnus Lindberg. All good music but I don’t get the point. Consult your decoder rings and send your possible solutions to me at my Zonguldak address. You might have to listen to the show first.
This week’s Updoc—8PM Friday and noon next Tuesday, East Coasting Time—starts off with some recent jazz releases from J.D. Allen, John Ellis, Ian Carey and Matt White with some other things mixed in, but it centers on a symphony from someone dear to Updoc’s heart. Tom Service’s classical music blog in the Guardian has just started discussing fifty symphonies and started off with Beethoven’s Fifth, why not. Service surprised me by turning next to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifteenth and last, a piece I’d always felt betrayed a waning of the great man’s powers; but Service went on at length about how ‘enigmatic’ the piece was, with its quotations from Rossini and Wagner—Shostakovich said he didn’t know what they were doing there but couldn’t seem to leave them out—and its shifting moods, and though he did nothing to unpuzzle the enigma he did get me to listen closely. I came away with a renewed regard for the composition which, unlike most of Shostakovich’s late music, is not stilled more than halfway to death but is of an expressive piece with his First and his Ninth, in which mordant comedy gradually discloses a tragic heart. Service thinks that the eerie clickety-clack percussion at the end—what a way to finish the century’s great symphonic cycle!—evokes the life support machines the composer had become all too familiar with, but it’s also an echo of the Fourth Symphony, the one that almost cost the composer his young life. I chose a brusque, no-nonsense performance by Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Phil to prevent the music from seeming as diffuse to you as it once did to me. May the enigma deepen in you.
Hmm, not too much jazz on this week’s show—that’d be Updoc, Friday at 8PM, noon next Tuesday, Flatbush Avenue time—but I hope you’ll drop in anyway: the music’s fine. First Oliver Knussen’s charming Music for a Puppet Court, then some moonscape Ligeti, then some of that Mozart cat. George Szell was the martinet among European emigré conductors and has never been a favorite of mine, but this performance of Mozart’s radiant “Haffner” symphony has a grip on the rhythmic genius of this work—as propulsive as anything Beethoven wrote, and more various—and never lets go. Try not to be exhilirated and you will fail. More Knussen, his fine Violin Concerto—I’ve begun to think there’s more first-rate ‘classical’ music being composed in Britain these days than anywhere else, and I put it down in part to the non-dogmatic and undomineering influence of Benjamin Britten—and then what really seems to be the point of the show: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which I think should be subtitled The Good for What Ails You. Along with all the grace and elegance you expect from Mozart there is something almost infinitely consoling about this music, in a luminous performance here by Maria Joao Pires. Once that merciful note is sounded, Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe is a natural: he has lasted when other minimalist-medievalists have not, because in the end spiritual authenticity cannot be faked. Could the show end with anything but Cannonball and the world’s funkiest Austrian ever? Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.