14 April 2007

still stunning, 50 years on:
Gerry Mulligan + Paul Desmond
Blues in time (aka Quartet)

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This is one of those recordings for the ages – it’s amazing to think, while listening to this album, that it was recorded almost 50 years ago, in August 1957. It just illustrates that great music is timeless – it’s as fresh and relevant today as when it was new. I would have been 7 or 8 years old when the LP was originally released – sadly, I hadn’t yet discovered the wonders of jazz…if I had heard this at the time, my head would probably have exploded.

The 50s were a particularly exciting time for jazz – the mid-to-late 40s had produced some of the greatest players of all time, experimentation was embraced, and styles were shooting off in all directions, much to the benefit of both the musicians and listeners. Gerry Mulligan, who would prove his staying power over the years, remaining vital to the end of his days, had been largely responsible for the mind-blowing arrangements and overall sound on Miles Davis’ landmark Birth of the cool sessions (recorded in the late 40s, released on LP in 1957) – Paul Desmond had established his reputation as well, and was a highly respected member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. The Brubeck group’s recording of Desmond’s composition ‘Take five’ did as much as any other event to spread the popularity / acceptance of jazz beyond the smoky nightclubs where it was featured.

Gerry Mulligan was known all his life as an irrepressible sit-in player – he would show up at gigs by other musicians, planned or impromptu, and play along. In standard arrangements or when improvising, his work was stellar. One such sit-in, at a 1954 Carnegie Hall appearance by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, was the first instance of Mulligan and Desmond sharing a stage – the two reedmen found an instant rapport, but had difficulty bringing any recording plans to fruition due to label contract conflicts. Through a series of trade-offs, Gerry Mulligan / Paul Desmond was recorded later that year and released by Fantasy Records. Blues in time (on Verve) in 1957 was followed by Two of a mind (on Verve) in 1962, and We’re all together again for the first time (on Atlantic) in 1972, which also included Dave Brubeck.
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Coming out of the age of Charlie Parker – and undoubtedly feeling Bird’s great shadow, as did any sax player of that time – Desmond carved out his own niche with his alto, combining the energy of bebop with one of the keenest senses of melody and harmony in the field. He was where the freedom and energy of New York met the ‘cool’ of the California jazz scene – he combined these two (and other elements) effortlessly and seamlessly, with a quiet humility, always showing the greatest admiration and respect for fellow players. There’s a great story about someone musing aloud to Desmond whether Brubeck would have ‘made it’ without him – Desmond quickly and gently replied, ‘I never would have made it without Dave. He’s amazing harmonically, and he can be a fantastic accompanist. You can play the wrongest [sic] note possible in any chord, and he can make it sound like the only right one.’
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Blues in time is a dream of a session. There are originals by both Mulligan and Desmond, along with some standards of the day – ‘Body and soul’; a great quasi-bebop rendition of ‘Tea for two’ that you might not recognize without reading the title; and the Rodgers / Hart classic ‘Lover’. It’s hard to pick standouts here – but I would have to give a nod to Desmond’s ‘Blues in time’ and ‘Wintersong’, as well as Mulligan’s great ‘Line for Lyons’ (did he ever record a bad version of this tune…?) and ‘Stand still’. Mulligan’s rich baritone and Desmond’s lyrical alto dart and weave in and out of each other’s lines, finding harmonies, laying down supporting riffs, and sometimes just laying out – I can just picture one or the other simply stepping back to dig what the other is playing. There’s not a single line where one gets in the way of the other – the whole album is a joy, from beginning to end, with the two leaders being supported very ably by Joe Benjamin on bass and Dave Bailey on drums.

This is one of those classics that no jazz enthusiast should be without – and, truthfully, something that should be in the collection of anyone who enjoys jazz…or any great music…at all. The currently available version (released through Verve’s parent company, Polygram and entitled simply Quartet) has been re-mastered with reasonable care, and only lists for $11.98. What are you waiting for…?
pure grace and beauty in sound:
Dino Saluzzi + Anja Lechner
Ojos negros

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I’ve had this recording for 2-3 weeks now, and I can’t seem to get enough of it. On first listening, from the first few notes breathed from Dino Saluzzi’s bandoneón, I knew I was in for something magical. Even though Dino’s ‘sound’ is recognizable immediately, no one should mistake that statement as characterizing him as standing still musically – nothing could be further from the truth. His art is continuously evolving and growing – the musical forums in which he places his work are by no means repetitive. Since the issue of his first album for ECM, Kultrum (1982), I’ve been following the creativity of his music, and I’ve never been disappointed. He has worked as a solo artist, in duos, trios and larger groupings – his 1999 recording with the Rosamunde Quartett (again entitled Kultrum) showed that the bandoneón fits perfectly into a setting that could almost be classified as a form of chamber music.
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That recording also marked his first work with Anja Lechner, cellist for Rosamunde – she had for some time loved the music of the tango, and working more closely with Dino allowed her to hear that genre performed in a manner much more authentic than the European derivatives to which she had mainly been exposed. Just before she heard Dino play for the first time, in Munich, she had the opportunity to play concerts in Argentina, where she discovered that her suspicions had been correct: the style of tango being played in Europe was, for the most part, a pale imitation of the real thing. Dino’s music, she relates, ‘…was more profound that just tango. He was playing a music that was really his own…I entered a new world.’ She is without a doubt one of the finest cellists working today in any genre – her skill and sensitivity, and her ability to convey emotion and feeling in her playing without overriding her partner make her a perfect match to Dino’s music.

The phrase ‘more profound than just tango’ describes the art of Dino Saluzzi perfectly. In his hands, the bandoneón breathes with a life of its own – it becomes a part of him, an alternate voice, a storyteller, a filter through which passes everything he has seen, felt, tasted, experienced over the course of his life. When I listen to Dino play, I can close my eyes and see a mountain path shrouded in the mist of early morning. I can rub the dirt of a country road at twilight under my bare feet, feel a wind with a hint of coming rain blowing in early evening, take in the scent of a meal cooking over a fire, hear the laughter of children playing, relax in the embrace of a lover, see the wisdom in the dark eyes of a forest Indian. Dino’s music is his history – there are pieces inspired by events, family members, acquaintances, places and times – and the skill, love and care with which he evokes all of these things is nothing short of palpable in his playing.

There are a couple of pieces here that Dino has recorded before – ‘Tango a mi padre’, the album’s opening track, is a loving portrait of his father, and first appeared on Mojotoro in 1991. ‘Minguito’ was recorded on Volver, a project he did with the great Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, in 1986. All of the pieces, save ‘Ojos negros’ – composed by bandoneónist Vicente Greco (1888-1924) – are Saluzzi originals. ‘Esquina’ is a particularly beautiful example of how Dino’s memories wind their way through his music. He remembers the time, in his village of Salta, more than 60 years ago: ‘I still have this very clear picture of my father, sitting on a rock somewhere in our little village. I see him from the back, in his short-sleeved white t-shirt, in the moonlight, playing the bandoneón – and he’s playing a song I loved when I was just seven years old, a sad song about leaving a beautiful small town to go to the big city of Paris…’
The bandoneón and the cello complement each other exquistely throughout the recording – alternately leading or supporting, weaving in and out of each other with the grace of skillful dancers, moving so naturally that the listener might be compelled to suspect mind-reading talents are involved. Grace is indeed involved, but the music is also evolving constantly – Anja Lechner says, ‘In Dino’s music, you never play any phrase the same way twice.’ Dino adds, ‘We are basically playing a music build of rubato phrases – but the conception of the rubato is different at every concert. The pieces change all the time, but the way the improvising is integrated is different from the jazz approach…the composition is an idea that suggests some possibilities…we take a lot of freedom with the forms.’ The freedom here is based on structure as a foundation – but the skill of the players never allows the music to descend into anarchy. There is grace and beauty in every note, every phrase – it’s a wonderful thing to experience.
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Now and then one can hear the rhythm and form of the tango assert itself – it rises up for a moment, as if to remind us of where this music was born, of its lineage, then dances off into the mists of sound created by the players, leaving an audio shadow, a presence that never quite disappears. That being said, one should definitely not go into Dino Saluzzi’s music expecting it to be limited to ‘tango’ – that would be a big mistake. When asked if his music should be called ‘tango’, Dino wisely says ‘Time spent trying to define the music is time taken away from playing it. I always simply say, “I play music, sir”, and I hope that is enough…does the music touch you or not? This is what matters.’

I’ve always felt that the mark of a master musician is the impression left with the listener that the instrument is an extension of the performer’s voice, of his or her very soul – a window to their inner being, through which everything that makes them the person they are can be ‘seen’ in the form of sound. This recording delivers on that rare level – and it soars even higher on repeated listenings. It’s a treasure in the fullest sense of the word.

02 April 2007

100% organic music, no additives

Stuart Dempster:
Underground overlays from the Cistern Chapel
Pauline Oliveros / Stuart Dempster / Panaiotis:
Deep listening

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Once in a while I find myself going back to re-listen to something I haven’t experienced in a while – usually chosen by chance, browsing through my collection in search of something different than whatever’s been in my bedside CD player for the past week, or in my car for a day. Sometimes the re-discovery causes me to understand all too well why I haven’t chosen that particular item lately – sometimes it’s more like a revelation. A couple of nights ago, when I pulled Stuart Dempster’s Underground overlays from the Cistern Chapel (New Albion, 1995) out of the rack and put in on for bedtime listening, it was definitely the latter case.
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Stuart Dempster is a trombonist who has worked in many genres – he has played with the Oakland Symphony, worked with composer Terry Riley, studied aboriginal music in Australia, and has taught and performed around the world. His music has been featured in concert settings as well as accompanying dance.
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He is perhaps best-known today for having conceived and recorded original works that incorporate the space in which they are performed as an intrinsic part of the ensemble – the room as a force in the formation of the music. His recording In the great abbey of Clement VI (originally issued on LP by 1750 Arch, 1979; re-issued with an extra track on CD by New Albion, 1987) blew me away when I first heard it, many years ago.
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Dempster plays solo trombone and didjeridu, utilizing the incredible acoustics of the historic building in amazing ways. The space yields a 14-second delay time – it’s hard to tell, on first listening, where one note ends and the next begins.

Underground overlays was recorded in 1994 in an abandoned water cistern located at Fort Worden, Port Townsend, Washington – not his first experience with this space (Deep listening was recorded at this site in 1988). The cistern, when used, held over 2 million gallons of water – its diameter is 186 feet. The acoustics of the room are astonishing – the delay time is 45 seconds, and a whisper spoken against the wall at any point in the circumference can be heard by anyone standing at the wall in any part of the room. This recording features Dempster on solo trombone, conch and didjeridu; nine other trombonists (some of whom double on conch or didjeridu from time to time); and Debra Sykes on Tibetan cymbals.

The composer describes the technique used to ‘direct’ the ensemble – similar to a method he conceived in 1983 for an earlier work – in the liner notes to the CD: While spinning very slowly, I face each of the other trombonists in turn. The trombonists are spaced around the circumference of the cistern approximately 80 feet away from each other. When I face them straight on, they are to hear what I play and continue playing that item until I face them again with either the same or, more likely, new information. If I face down, they are to stop what they are doing; if I face up they are to ignore what I play and continue playing the previous information. This latter allows for solo passages. Because of the extraordinarily long reverberation, the pacing needs to move extremely slowly in order not to have too much activity at once. The result is a series of multiple sound overlays…

If this sounds confusing and possibly jarring (given most folks’ preconceptions of the sound of a single trombone, let alone 10 of them), think again – the result is incredibly soothing and calming, a sonic landscape of slowly shifting notes and waves that are meditative and gentle. I’m not an expert in sound sciences by any means, but I’m speculating that the acoustics of the room, combined with the expertise of the performers, take the ‘edge’ off the trombones’ usually ‘brassy’ voices. Played at medium or low volume, this is some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever experienced – at first, it’s hard to believe that the effects were achieved with absolutely no electronic or studio alteration. All of the reverberation is completely natural – organic ambience, if you will.

The first encounter Dempster had with the sonic properties of the Fort Worden cistern was back in 1988, while recording the Deep listening album with accordionist/composer Pauline Oliveros and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Panaiotis.
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The music created by these three innovators on this occasion are every bit as stunning as those on Underground overlays – they used a different array of instruments (trombone, didjeridu, garden hose, accordion, conch shells, metal percussion, voices and whistling), and instead of being ‘directed’, they are able to play and respond to each other, sometimes improvising, at other times using compositions or parts of compositions as a creative springboard. With the exception of track 4 (‘Nike’, which features the metal percussion), the results are every bit as meditative and calming as those on the Dempster recording. With the ability to play along with echoes of previously played notes and passages, it’s difficult at times to tell which sounds are coming from the accordion and which are generated by the trombone…and the voices are a nice touch as well…but in the end, it really doesn’t matter – this is an opportunity to sit in on a conversation of cosmic proportions between three incredibly creative minds.

In the notes, Pauline Oliveros explains the tuning of her accordion thusly: The accordion is tuned in two systems of just intonation: a five limit system in the left hand and a seven limit system in the right hand. The voice, trombone, and adjustable didjeridu made of jointed PVC pipe easily adapt to these tuning systems. Because of the tuning, the acoustic resonance of the ensemble is enhanced. The deep listening style comes about through the interacting individual styles of the composer/performers, influenced by special tunings and acoustic space.

It’s evident through listening to these wonderful albums that the consciousness-penetrating effect on the listener was felt by the composer/performers as well – this is music that can carry you away. If you’ve never heard any of these recordings, go to the New Albion site (link below), look up the titles and check out the sound samples. These are treasures I find myself revisiting again and again – the subtleties and layers are innumerable, making each hearing feel like I’m experiencing them for the first time…and that’s a rare and precious thing.


New Albion Records

Stuart Dempster website

Pauline Oliveros / Deep listening website

Panaiotis website