James Romig – Still (CD Review)

James Romig

Still

Ashlee Mack, piano

New World Records 80802

Composer James Romig has spent the past twenty years cultivating a body of work that embodies both rigorous structuring and a wide-ranging gestural palette. As is explained in Bruce Quaglia’s excellent liner notes for Romig’s first New World CD, Still, there is good reason for these two aspects to be so important to Romig. His training as a composer was with American modernists Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt, while his background as a performer – a percussionist – included a number of works by minimalists such as Steve Reich.

Extra-musical touchstones also play a significant role as inspirations for the composer. A series of National Park residencies has provided him with natural beauty to contemplate while composing. Abstract Expressionist painters such as Clyfford Still, who is the titular reference point for Romig’s piece on this CD, also enliven his imagination.

Nowhere in Romig’s output to date is this confluence of influences more apparent than in Still, a nearly hour-long piece for solo piano. One can see the pitch material’s progression in a chart in the liner notes and note the comprehensiveness of its organization. Unlike Romig’s portrait disc Leaves from Modern Trees, where the pieces tend towards tautly incisive utterance, here the progression of pitch material evolves slowly in a prevailingly soft dynamic spectrum. Ashlee Mack, a frequent performer of Romig’s music, provides a sterling interpretation. Slow tempi are maintained no matter what local rhythms (some complex) ripple the surface texture. In addition, Mack voices the harmony skilfully, allowing the piece-long progression to be presented with abundant clarity.

One more composerly ghost lurks in the room: that of Morton Feldman. Also an appreciator of Abstract Expressionism, who created long single movement pieces that transformed slowly and remained primarily soft, Feldman could seem to be Still’s natural progenitor. While surface details and scale of composition are similar, there is a significant musical difference between Feldman’s paean to a painter like Philip Guston and Romig’s reference to Clyfford Still. As pointed out by theorists such as Thomas DeLio, the undergirding of a Feldman piece is indeed subject to an organizational structure. That said, his work seems more intuitive than Romig’s, which is methodical in the unfurling of its linear components and their constituent harmonies. Whether Feldman’s surface in any way inspires the depths of Still, I am not sure; it would be an interesting question to pose to Romig. Either way, Still is his most engaging and beguiling piece to date. One looks forward to hearing more works that accumulate Romig’s proclivity for parks, painters, maximalists, and minimalists; these many ingredients make for intriguing results.

Best Recording 2017 – Tyshawn Sorey’s Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude

Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey, drums, percussion, composer; Cory Smythe, piano, toy piano, electronics; Chris Tordini, bass

Pi Records PI70

Tyshawn Sorey has had quite a year of musical accomplishments. After recently finishing up his doctorate at Columbia, he succeeded Anthony Braxton on the faculty at Wesleyan University, won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and received several other major awards and commissions. He has remained active in a number of ensembles, playing a pivotal role on another of this year’s best CDs, Vijay Iyer Sextet’s Far From Over (ECM). Verisimilitude, for Pi Recordings, is his sixth recorded outing as leader. Sorey is joined by pianist Corey Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini in five adventurous and stimulating compositions.

 

A suitable overture, “Cascade in Slow Motion,” is buoyed by interlocking arpeggios from pizzicato bass and piano and punctuated by supply drummed polyrhythms. Clocking in at four and a half minutes, it is the only relative miniature here. Thereafter, Sorey and his colleagues explore long form music-making. An arco bass solo leads off “Flowers for Prashant,” which then turns into a dovetailing duet. A gradual intensification led by this duet texture takes place, only to hew back to drone-based passages of repeated notes.

 

Smythe uses electronics and Tordini high-pitched arco lines to begin “Obsidian.” After an extended introduction exploring these timbres, Tordini plays lower pitched glissandos and Smythe sepulcral bass note stabs. Sorey enters with textural percussion: a gong, a host of woody fills, and shimmering cymbals. A fulsome groove is established; Tordini returns to pizzicato bass, Smythe repeats bass register chords, and Sorey deploys a cannonade at the kit. Eventually, pointillism is reasserted with upper register piano chords and throbbing bass notes; Sorey moves back to cymbals and auxiliary percussion instruments. Smythe’s basso reiterations lead to a coda based on the second section. Then there is a gradual denouement, punctuated by long gong strokes and slithering bass register glissandos.

 

“Algid November” is the half-hour long centerpiece of Verisimilitude and is Sorey’s most ambitious piece for trio yet. Once again, the emphasis is on gradually morphing from one set of textures and playing demeanors to the next. The musical fabric consists at first of a prevailingly soft dynamic and slow tempo, one undergirded with big beats (never amorphous) that contains numerous angular feints and jabs from all three players. Sorey is a master at contrasting the resounding of instruments such as gongs and cymbals with the faster decay of drums and small percussion instruments; all interactions and decays are timed with precision. After a long period in which these juxtapositions are the focal point, Sorey performs at the drum kit with zeal, while Smythe and Tordini operate in a dissonant language of jagged filigrees.

 

A little less than halfway through, the piece moves from post-tonality to post-bop, with cascading arpeggiations from Smythe and walking lines from Tordini locked in a tight groove that Sorey simultaneously supports and overlays with contrasting elements. Just when one feels their toes tapping, the trio moves sideways in lockstep, back to the big beats of the opener but with a fuller overall texture. Rearticulated verticals, first low and then high, signal yet another change in direction. Smythe’s repeated notes pile up in an ostinato haze and Tordini grooves in still another timeframe while Sorey engages in lithe ornamentation. Two thirds of the way through the piece, a visceral build up leads to a huge crash of cymbals.

 

Afterwards, the musicians resume the slow tempo and fragile soundscape that began “Algid November.” Pitched percussion, quickly plucked bass melodies, and chiming piano lines give way to rattling reiterations from Sorey and Smythe. It is as if the big crash that signalled the piece’s climax is being allowed successive echos. Interpolations of the swing section, in tiny slices that last merely a breath or two, are juxtaposed with barbed jabs and intricately constructed rhythmic passages. Another gale storm threatens, then is subdued, devolving into muted piano notes and quietly reverberant gong rolls.

 

The final work on the CD, “Contemplating Tranquility,” opens with the same muted material that closed “Algid November.” Gongs and temple bells gradually coalesce into  a new, still slow, pulse stream of pitched percussion, toy piano ,and then grand piano. Glassy piano harmonies are pitted against reiterated soundings of the gong. Smythe gradually adds arpeggios in the low register to replicate the lowest sounding frequencies of the gong. Filling in the registers, Sorey suddenly switches roles, adding trebly unpitched percussion to the proceedings where there had been piano. Toy piano and pitched percussion engage in a duet that is joined by a low rumbling and then sustained upper register arco lines and a generous dose of harmonics from Tordini. Smythe begins to build verticals in a more harmonically conceived direction, buoyed by more consonance — even an octave here and there — from the bass player. As things converge around the low E string of the bass, Tordini then has some fun of his own, throwing in notes that rend the heretofore harmonically grounded passage asunder. While Sorey weaves sustained cymbal passages, pianist and bassist create a duet that ebbs and flows in an ever narrowing dynamic spectrum. Temple bells suggests a possible return to the more contemplative demeanor of the opening. Instead, it is a signal that the meditation is over. Thus ends Sorey’s Verisimilitude, Sequenza 21’s Best Recording of 2017.

 

Best Drone Recording 2017: Lee Plays Gibson

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Randy Gibson

The Four Pillars Appearing from The Equal D under Resonating Apparitions of The Eternal Process in The Midwinter Starfield 16 VIII 10 (Kansas City)

Andrew Lee, amplified piano

Irritable Hedgehog

Composer Randy Gibson is best known for his compelling experiments with intonation. R. Andrew Lee is the go-to pianist for Wandelweiser and minimalist-oriented music. On Gibson’s The Four Pillars Appearing from The Equal D under Resonating Apparitions of The Eternal Process in The Midwinter Starfield 16 VIII 10 (Kansas City), he meets Lee in the middle, creating a mammoth work out of very restricted means. The pitch material of the piece consists of just seven notes: D in all the octaves on a concert grand piano in equal temperament. Added to this are amplification and a small amount of electronic manipulation, designed to add resonance to the overtone vibrations taking place.

 

Irritable Hedgehog’s recording is a single unedited live performance from 2016 at University of Kansas City Missouri, with electronics realized alongside the piano part. Clocking in at some three-and-a-half hours, Lee deserves credit for a tour de force of stamina, focus and, perhaps above all, musicality in shaping the repeating pitches into countless varied phrases. Gibson is a master of deploying overtones. He has figured out how to exploit the various spaces between D’s to gradate the appearances of the harmonic series’ upper notes, or partials, and to maximize their potential. Shimmering conglomerations of overtones abound in The Four Pillars … it is certainly not a piece just about D! And while pitch serves as a focal point, it is worth mentioning that the piece’s overall shape, labyrinthine in scope, and its localized rhythmic gestures are equally well conceived. Four Pillars is one of the most compelling pieces yet from Gibson, and is Sequenza 21’s Best Drone Recording of 2017.

 

 

Aaron Parks Trio at Smalls (Performance Review)

Aaron Parks Trio

Smalls Live

June 16, 2017

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Nestled snuggly in the midst of Greenwich Village, Smalls Live is an intimate space, but a vital one for the jazz scene. Over the past decade, the venue has hosted thousands of performances – 11,000 of them are archived on the site for subscription-based streaming. With a nice piano and fastidious sound, it is an enjoyable place to experience live music. “Nestled snuggly,” but comfortably, was how I felt on June 16th, as my partner and I were fortunate to garner two of the last seats. The venue was full of a wide cross section of attendees; seasoned jazz buffs and regulars mingled with a decidedly younger set. If pianist Aaron Parks — and Smalls — can continue to draw such a healthy-sized audience from a similar cross-section of demographics, signs are most encouraging.

 

Parks was celebrating the release of Find the Way, his second CD as a leader on ECM. He was joined, both on the recording session and at Smalls, by bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, veterans who have played together in various contexts in the past. Find the Way consists of eight originals and one tune by Ian Bernard: the CD’s title track. The live set featured selections from the album, as well as two tunes from elsewhere: an as yet unrecorded Parks original “Isle of Everything” and George Shearing’s “Conception,” which Parks has recorded with Anders Christensen. The first of these vacillated between free tempo bluesy excursions and more incisive post-bop passages. Hart played his cymbals with abandon while Street juxtaposed walking lines with countermelodies high on the neck of his double bass. “Conception” was tightly knit and taken uptempo, demonstrating the pianist’s facility with wide-ranging arpeggios and the rhythm section’s seamless coordination.

 

The trio sidled into a mid-tempo groove, with a plethora of gestural imitation between them, on the album cut “Melquíades.” “Adrift” included a guest musician: the saxophonist Dayna Stephens. Both Find the Way and Stephens’s Criss Cross recording I’ll Take My Chances feature this composition. Parks and Stephens spurred each other on, creating ebullient soaring lines in some of the most inspired playing of the evening. Not to be outdone, Hart played forcefully and dexterously on “Hold Music,” a piece written by Parks to showcase his colleague’s legendary drumming. The final number of the set was the CD’s title track, which demonstrated the pianist’s impressionist leanings, boasting limpid splashes of harmony redolent of Debussy and Ravel. As we departed, there was a line out the door, eager to hear the trio’s second set. Encouraging signs indeed.

Friday: Aaron Parks Trio at Smalls

Parks trio color
Aaron Parks Trio left to right : Billy Hart, Aaron Parks, Ben Street Photo: © Bart Babinski / ECM Records

On Friday, June 16th from 7:30 to 10 at the New York jazz venue Smalls, pianist Aaron Parks celebrates the release of Find the Way, his second release on ECM as a leader (and third overall). On 2013’s Arborescence, Parks appeared on the label as a solo artist, crafting improvisations in a live setting that were gently sculpted but nevertheless stirring selections. This time out, Parks plays in a trio; he has a versatile and well-versed rhythm section at his disposal and to his credit, the pianist adopts an attitude of collaboration, encouraging each artist to take a turn in the spotlight. He is joined by eminent jazz drummer and frequent ECM recording artist Billy Hart and bassist Ben Street, a musician with many avant-jazz credentials who also plays in Hart’s quartet.

Aaron Parks - Find the Way

With energetic tom fills and textural cymbal playing, Hart particularly stands out on “Hold Music,” one of eight originals on the recording (the only cover is the title song, a chestnut that isn’t a household name, but ought to be). On “Song for Sashou,” Street supports a supple quasi-bossa, gliding in and out of register with Parks’ comping to underscore both rhythmic elements and a fetching countermelody.

There’s a painterly quality to the tune “Adrift.” It serves as a point of departure from the washes of sound that Parks evokes in his solo playing. These are now incorporated into a multifaceted context with a rhythm section’s underpinning. Still, the title is an accurate one; even with drums and bass, there is a delicacy of approach here that prevents the music from feeling too strongly grounded. Often Parks takes neo-impressionist approach. “Unravel” flirts with Ravel in its extended chord arpeggiations and revels in delightful offsets in the interplay between the hands. “The Storyteller” pits Parks’ stacking of extended chords against bluesy right hand licks. Meanwhile, Hart makes space for fills to spur things onwards and Street plays multi-register melodies, once again finding a melodic role for the bass to navigate. “Alice,” with aching suspensions and deft filigrees in its intro, followed by a rousing colloquy for the trio, is a particularly memorable composition and one that demonstrates that there is a bit of welcome steel in the midst of this trio’s buoyant demeanor. Find the Way is a big step forward in the development of Parks’ already potent musicality – one imagines that this will be a memorable gig!

Andrew Lee – “Inner Monologues (Venn Diagram of Six Pitches)”

Pianist R. Andrew Lee has released a new EP on Irritable Hedgehog. It is a recording of composer/improviser Ryan Oldham’s Inner Monologues (Venn Diagram of Six Pitches). The hexachord in question is presented in slow-paced fashion, appearing throughout the keyboard in configurations of varying densities. There certainly are links between Oldham and the Wandelweiser Collective and Morton Feldman in terms of the slow unfolding and deft touch with which material is deployed. One also might infer nods to both Linda Catlin Smith and Tom Johnson, the first in terms of a willingness to allow the proceedings simultaneously to drift and grid to an underlying pulse; the second via the process-based treatment of pitch and spacing. Inner Monologues is both an impressive and beguiling work.

As is so often the case, Lee is a dedicated advocate and compelling performer, cannily exploiting the resonance of the instrument, never pushing the proceedings but instead trusting the piano’s decay to be a guidepost, and exhorting the listener to live in the space of that decay far longer than is customary. When I recently heard Lee’s performance of a piece by Jürg Frey at New Music Gathering 2017 in Bowling Green, Ohio, he demonstrated a similar patient intensity that is perfectly suited to experimental and post-minimal repertoire. See and hear him in person when you can. But in the meantime, let his Irritable Hedgehog releases be a valuable stand-in for the live experience.

Required Reading: The Spectral Piano

The Spectral Piano

Book review

The Spectral Piano

From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age

By Marilyn Nonken, with a chapter by Hugues Dufourt

Cambridge University Press, 192 pp., 2014/2016 (paperback edition)

By Christian Carey

Recently reissued in paperback, pianist/author Marilyn Nonken’s book The Spectral Piano is a fascinating examination of the history of piano music beginning in the mid-1800s that leads to its use in a spectral context from the 1970s to the present. Nonken’s thesis is that the employment of the piano to imitate the harmonic series so prevalent in contemporary spectralism is a venerable practice; that composers have long sought to subvert the equal-tempered tuning of the piano with various manners of spacing and subterfuge in order to align it more closely with the deployment of overtones found in nature.

Nonken is particularly successful in this pursuit. She connects the music of Liszt, Scriabin, Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez, and others to the project of proto-spectralism. The author is also convincing in her positioning of recent American composers, such as Joshua Fineberg (a composer whom she has championed on recording) and Edmund Campion, and British composers James Dillon and Jonathan Harvey, as heirs to the traditions of spectralism. Nonken also excels at making connections between technological advances in measuring acoustic phenomena and parallel advances in proto-spectral and spectral music.

As a matter of course, French spectralism of the 1970s-90s occupies a central role in the book. Discussion of Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey, and Hugues Dufourt, the latter of whom contributes a chapter, “Spectralism and the Pianistic Expression,” appended at the end of the book, provides a thought-provoking survey of these composers’ spectral works. In turn, the students of this first generation of spectralists, most of whom studied at IRCAM, such as Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Philippe Hurel, and Marc-Andre Dalbavie, are presented as “hybrid spectralists;” heirs to a tradition, but one that they have sought to expand through the addition of non-spectral elements from new complexity, second modernity, electroacoustic, and other areas of compositional activity. A curious omission from this section is Georg Friedrich Haas, whose work flow and friction for sixteenth tuned piano four hands is organized using principles of spectralism.

In The Spectral Piano, Nonken brings to bear both her extensive knowledge of piano literature as an estimable performer of both contemporary and earlier works, as well as an impressive scholarly acumen. The result is a volume that will cause much rethinking of traditional piano music and exposure to a new and vital repertoire. Now that the book has been made available in paperback, it is a must-have for the libraries of composers and pianists.