Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Music Review: Ahmad Jamal - Blue Moon

Miles Davis once said, “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal,” which is high praise indeed from the legendary trumpeter. Anyone even remotely familiar with Davis knows that he did not hand out compliments lightly. Ahmad Jamal was born in July 1930, as Frederick Russell Jones, which makes him 81 years young today. One of the greatest things about jazz musicians is they just seem to get better with age, and Jamal is no exception. His new Blue Moon recording is a fine example of this.

Jamal has always worked in the “small combo” format. For Blue Moon, the quartet features Reginald Veal (double bass), Herlin Riley (drums), Manolo Badrena (percussion), and of course the great piano work of Ahmad himself. The approach works perfectly for the type of music he makes, and Blue Moon is a wonderful way of hearing what it is he does best.

The album contains nine tracks, three of which are Jamal originals. They fit in perfectly with the remaining six tunes, which come from the worlds of film, Broadway, and the standards songbook. While I certainly cannot speak for Davis, I interpret what he had to say in regards to Ahmad’s music as being somewhat vast. His piano playing is always uniquely creative, which is most definitely applicable to the trumpet playing of Miles Davis.

Blue Moon opens up with “Autumn Rain,” which is an Ahmad Jamal original. This is an excellent example of what he does best. The mid-tempo track begins with the entire band stating the theme and playing off of it. Then, about half-way through, Ahmad takes a solo which is dazzling in its virtuosity.

From there we proceed to the title track, which has been recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Bill Monroe, and many, many others. Jamal’s interpretation of this standard is great - and surprising. Drummer Riley and percussionist Badrena open the tune with some unexpected soloing, which immediately sets the song apart from the “usual” approach.

Next up is the classic Billy Reid-written track “Gypsy,” which hit the Billboard charts in three different versions - with the Ink Spots, Dinah Shore, and Sammy Kaye. The song has been recorded by numerous jazz artists over the years as well. The various contrasts Jamal’s quartet bring to it make the song one of the album’s highlights.

The eclectic nature of Blue Moon continues with a visit to Broadway for “Invitation,” and “This is the Life.” Jamal then goes solo for the title song of the Otto Preminger film Laura (1944), which was written by Johnny Mercer. Of the nine tunes here, I was most impressed with Ahmad’s own “I Remember Italy.” The entire quartet recieve plenty of opportunities to stretch out over the course of this 13:14 piece, and they all take full advantage of it.

Blue Moon closes with a tribute to the jazz form itself, “Woody ’N You,” written by Dizzy Gillespie. Ahmad calls the song is one of his “go-to” classics. He certainly has a history with it, as his first recorded version of it was on the Live At Pershing album from 1958.

Ahmad Jamal has recorded jazz of just about every stripe over the course of his long career, including some outstanding work for the Impulse! label in the late sixties and early seventies. Blue Moon does a brilliant job of drawing together the various strands and styles he does so well. The liner notes of this JazzVillage Records release contain a beautiful poem titled “For Ahmad Jamal” by Catherine Vallon-Barry. It is a fitting tribute to this living legend, and Blue Moon contains some fantastic music, from top to bottom this is one very strong album.

Article first published as Music Review: Ahmad Jamal - Blue Moon on Blogcritics.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Music Review: Sofia Gubaidulina - Canticle of the Sun

The Lockenhaus Festival in Austria was founded by Giden Kremer and Father Josef Herovitsch in 1981 as a place to present new music to the world. The recent five-disc ECM release Edition Lockenhaus contains some marvelous music from the festival over the years. But there has obviously been a great deal more music played there than has seen release. The ECM New Series release Canticle of the Sun features two compositions by Sofia Gubaidulina which were recorded at the Festival. Both are magnificent examples of modern classical music.

The first work is titled "The Lyre of Orpheus," and is actually only the first portion of the Nadeyka triptych. It was composed in 2006, and recorded at Lockenhaus that same year. This 23:40 piece features Gidon Kremer (violin), Marta Sudraba (violoncello) and the Kremerata Baltica ensemble. This represents the premiere recording of "The Lyre," and it is an extraordinarily dramatic composition. The violin of Kremer is masterful, and the contrasts the music employs are at times almost frightening in their intensity.

If anything, the title work "Canticle of the Sun" is even more intense. It is divided into four sections: "Glorification of the Creator, and of His Creations: The Sun and the Moon" (10:12); "Glorification of the Creator, the Maker of the Four Elements: Air, Water, Fire, and Earth" (13:19); "Glorification of Life" (14:29); "Glorification of Death" (7:23).

The recording of "Canticle of the Sun" took place at the 2010 Festival. The performers are Nicolas Alstaedt (violoncello), Andrei Pushkarev, Rihards Zalupe (percussion), Rotislav Krimer (celesta), and the Riga Chamer Choir: “Kamer…” conducted by Maris Sirmais.

The piece was composed in 1997, and revised in 1998. The text is The Canticle of the Sun by St. Francis of Assisi. In the liner notes Sofia Gubaidulina discusses the difficulties she had in staying faithful to the intentions of the text, while incorporating it into the larger piece.

She explains, “I understood that under no circumstances should this text be sung through. Under no circumstances should the expression of this canticle be intensified by music…This is the glorification of the Creator and His Creation by a very humble, simple Christian friar. I tried therefore to make the choral part very restrained, even secretive; and to put all the expression in the hands of the cellists and percussionists.”

This explains a great deal when one listens to the piece. The first time I played it, I was also reading, and kept wondering why the choral sections were so quiet in comparison to the music. Once I read Sofia’s notes, it all made sense. The texts are presented in their original Italian form, but the booklet thankfully translates the words into English as well.

As the composer indicates, the whole of "Canticle of the Sun" is much more devoted to the musical than the textual. In fact, the piece was inspired, and dedicated to “the greatest cellist of the twentieth century, Mstislav Rostropovich.” There are certainly percussive moments of punctuation, and the choir has already been mentioned. But this composition is dominated by the beautiful violoncello work of Nicolas Alstaedt.

I must confess that the various artists Manfred Eicher records for his ECM New Series have led me into a deep appreciation for classical music, both the “old masters,” and some contemporary composers. Canticle of the Sun powerfully represents one of the reasons for this. I have listened to it numerous times already, and will continue to.

But I wonder if I will ever “get to the bottom” of it. I understand the basics of music theory, and even play a bit of guitar. The compositions of Sofia Gubaidulina, and these Lockenhaus performances are so far above my rudimentary knowledge, however, that I can only listen in amazement. Canticle of the Sun represents the very best in modern classical music. This release is as fine an example of what the ECM New Series does best as anyone could ask for.

Article first published as Music Review: Sofia Gubaidulina - Canticle of the Sun on Blogcritics.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Music Review: Monty Adkins - Fragile.Flicker.Fragment

When Professor Monty Adkins is not teaching music students at England’s University of Huddersfield, he is researching and recording sounds in many different formats. He describes his latest release, 2011's Fragile.Flicker.Fragment (Audiobulb), as “Slow shifting organic instrumental and concrete soundscapes.” He is part of a fascinating group of musical pioneers in electroacoustic music.

The term “electroacoustic music” is somewhat broad as it covers a wide range of sound experimentation. Some of the forms include musique concrete, computer music, tape music — basically electronic music of all sorts. It is no surprise that he is recording for Audiobulb, who are dedicated to “exploratory electronic music.”

Although Adkins has released a number of solo recordings and has appeared on quite a few compilations, Fragile.Flicker.Fragment is his first effort for the label.
In his official biography Adkins explains the various strands of the movement he has explored over the years. For the purposes of this review, the following quote is particularly illuminating: “Recently the work has become increasingly minimal and introspective. This work focuses on encouraging a deeper immersive listening experience. Working with a reduced sonic palette, the new works draw together elements from ambient, minimal electronica, acousmatic and experimental electronic music.”

The emphasis on the intellectual side of things is understandable for a professor, but I think it also tends to alienate the “average” listener such as myself. It is one thing to understand the conceptual framework of these tracks, but in the end one does not need to be a musicologist to enjoy this recording. I knew next to nothing about Professor Adkins before listening to Fragile.Flicker.Fragment, and it did not matter in the least. For the most part, the nine tracks fall into the ambient minimalism category, with some notable exceptions.

The disc opens up with “Memory Box,” a very inviting piece utilizing what sounds like “tubular bells“ to me. I actually have no idea as to what specific instruments were used on the album or whether it was created entirely electronically, so I can only describe what I hear. The moods created by Adkins are what count, and they are varied, and often quite beautiful. “Remnant” evokes an air of mystery, where “Ode” is probably the most raucous track.

The most experimental piece is quite appropriately titled “Torn Mosaic.” This is by far the longest track on the disc, clocking in a 11:30. Adkins pulls out all the stops here, beginning with some very “futuristic” tones, underscored by a nice, very ambient bed of sound. Following this portion, we hear the intriguing tones of an of instrument that sounds very much like a harmonium. The ending is a long, low drone, sprinkled with intermittent flourishes. I must say that I found “Torn Mosaic” to be a very impressive sound-sculpture.

The ninth and final track, “Memory Etching,” is also quite experimental in nature, although not quite as long or involved as “Torn Mosaic.” As with all of the Audiobulb releases, detailed information is available on their website, as well as ordering options. Monty Adkins’ second Audiobulb recording, titled Four Shibusa, is set for release in April, and is one I am highly anticipating.

Article first published as Music Review: Monty Adkins - Fragile.Flicker.Fragment on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Three Outlaw Samurai - The Criterion Collection

Although Japanese filmmaker Hideo Gosha (1929-1992) is not as familiar with Western audiences as, say, Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), he was a master of the craft. Three Outlaw Samurai(1964) was his feature debut, and the new Criterion Collection edition presents it in outstanding form. Three Outlaw Samurai is not only full of great action, but the basic “good vs. evil” storyline is turned on its head repeatedly. It remains a very daring piece of work, and keeps the viewer guessing all the up to the end.

The genre is called chanbara (sword-fighting), and it is a refreshingly different approach altogether. The most obvious comparison for Americans would be westerns, with swords replacing guns. Then there are the almost mystical Samurai, who are able to take on ten,(or twenty) men, and dispatch them within a matter of seconds.

Three Outlaw Samurai was a popular Japanese television program at the time. It featured the title characters basically roaming the countryside, and “righting the wrongs” they encountered. The film is a prequel, telling the story of how these wandering heroes first came together. It is a fascinating tale.

The film begins with the ronin Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba) hearing the cries of a woman from inside an old mill. When he goes in to investigate, he discovers that she is the daughter of the local magistrate, who is being held captive by three peasants to force the magistrate to listen to their demands. Shiba’s initial reaction was to free her, but when he hears the peasants’ plight, and realizes that they have not harmed her, he sides with them.

Meanwhile the magistrate is desperate not only to secure his daughter’s release, but to save face as well. He hires a number of men to storm the old farmhouse, all of whom Shiba easily deals with. Things become much more complex when the magistrate hires two Samurai to deal with Shiba. This is where torture, deception, and the Samurai code of honor comes into play, and is a very compelling story.

There are no real bonus features besides the trailer to speak of, although the black and white, high definition digital restoration is certainly notable. There is also an insightful essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri included in the accompanying booklet. For anyone curious about other truly gifted Japanese filmmakers (besides Kurosawa) — or, for that matter, great action films — Three Outlaw Samurai is recommended.

Article first published as DVD Review: Three Outlaw Samurai - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists - Favourite Places Volumes One & Two

The Audiobulb label was founded by musician David Newman in 2003. Newman describes his label as a home for “exploratory electronic music,” which covers a lot of bases. In fact, it may be too broad a term - which is one reason why the Favourite Places samplers are such a great place to start in getting to know some of the label’s artists.

The first Favourite Places collection was released in 2008, and the second came out in 2009. With music as intriguing as this though, there is certainly no “sell by” date code. The artists Newman chose to spotlight on these collections represent a wide variety of music, from literally all over the world.

Each collection contains ten tracks, with no overlapping of artists. So the two Favourite Places sets offer an excellent opportunity to discover twenty artists which one would probably not generally come into contact with. One of the reasons I have become such a fan of the label is the wide variety of music David Newman releases. Just about anything that falls under the rubric of electronic music is represented.

The high-quality of musical experimentation that makes Audiobulb such an intriguing record label is apparent from the very first track on Favourite Places Volume One. The artist is Taylor Deupree, and the cut is titled simply “6 a.m.” Over the course of 6:06, we are taken on a beautiful journey. With music such as this, one can interpret it anyway they wish, but I like to think of it as a peaceful walk through the woods. There is a gentle percussive beat, with a melody that slowly builds throughout the piece.

A great illustration of the truly experimental nature of some of the artists follows, with “Shower Time & Glockenspiel,” by Dot Tape Dot. The liner notes amplify the concept of Favourite Places by listing the exact “place” each track was recorded at, in two ways. The place “Shower Time & Glockenspiel” was created at is kind of funny - “My Bathroom.” Newman also provides us with the exact global longitude and latitude of the place as well.

All ten tracks on Volume One have their merits, but I was particularly drawn to “Tranoy Lighthouse” by Biosphere, and “A Place For Saving” by RF (featuring Midori Hirano). Both of these pieces evoke a quiet, peaceful mood - yet also show quite a bit of inventiveness as well. With a sampler such as this, they work perfectly, making me want to hear more from each artist.

Favourite Places Volume Two is identical in structure to the first edition, with ten individual artists and tracks. Oddly enough, David Newman himself waited until this second collection to include any of his own music. He records under the rubric of Autistici. I recently reviewed two discs of his early works, plus a various artists set of Autistici music remixed here .

The earlier Autistici music was quite different from “Winter Heather, Frozen Breath,” which is the Favourite Places track. His “Music has been a growth process for me,” quote is very evident when comparing the older Autistici tracks with “Winter Heather, Frozen Heather.” With this cut, we are presented with a very soothing, and quite beautiful piece of music.

Jeremy Bible’s “Behind The Concrete Factory,” is another gorgeous tune, and is quite literal, as the place it was recorded at is listed as “Behind The Concrete Factory, Canton, Ohio USA.” The mental image that place summons up (for me at least) is nothing at all like what this song sounds like. With what sounds like birdsong opening up the composition, followed by a slowly evolving melodic line - you get no impression whatsoever of a concrete factory in Ohio. Rather what I thought of was a very interesting spot overlooking a vast space.

Again, one of the great things about music such as this is that it is so wide open to interpretation. “Partridge Green” by Calika tends more toward the experimental side of things, with a variety of musical moods evoked throughout. He Can Jog ends the set with arguably the most “experimental” piece of the entire collection. I will be reviewing the full Middlemarch disc by He Can Jog shortly, but for now let me just say that they have a very intriguing sound.

The title of the He Can Jog cut is “Woodbine Entwist,” and it does a wonderful job of contrasting both the disconcerting, and the familiar. For this track, He Can Jog is joined by Sebastian Krueger on vocals - and the results are exactly what I have come to enjoy about Audiobulb’s music in general. The old adage, “expect the unexpected” is quite appropriate for not only He Can Jog, but for the label in general.

Both Favourite Places sets work quite well on their own, and are excellent introductions to the various artists artists on the label. The Audiobulb website itself is well worth checking out, as it is filled with information about these and all of the other releases on the label. For music fans looking for something a little outside of the ordinary, this is a label that is well worth looking into.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Favourite Places Volumes One & Two on Blogcritics.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book Review: The Official Book of Mob Humor by Malcolm Kushner

With a title like The Official Book of Mob Humor, how could a guy resist? The way the Mafia has been presented in the first two Godfather films, plus Goodfellas and The Sopranos — it seems like the ultimate “boys club.” For one thing, in all of these celluloid visions, the guys being “whacked” had it coming. For the most part, the Mafia “heroes” had our sympathy. This is sort of a weird way of looking at things. Does anyone remember the days of “The Teflon Don” (John Gotti) back in the mid-eighties? When Gotti beat Federal rap after rap, crowds cheered him. Not only that, but he was actually on the cover of Time magazine. And this was 25 years ago, when the cover of Time actually meant something.

There was a pretty good movie that came out in 1997 called Donnie Brasco, which was the undercover name of FBI agent Joe Pistone. Pistone is quoted on the cover with the words “A book for all Mafia lovers.” Mafia lovers? What is that supposed to mean? You love the fact that your neighborhood deli guy has to pay a percentage of his income to keep from being killed? And this from a former FBI agent.

Regardless of these disclaimers though, I have seen the films cited, and all episodes of The Soparanos probably 20 times apiece. So much of this type of humor was summed up in about 45 seconds of the very first Godfather flick. After the Don is shot, revenge is quietly taken out on the New Jersey turnpike. While Peter Clemenza takes a whiz, Paulie (the driver) is shot by Rocco from the backseat. As the two leave Clemenza says “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”

The Official Book of Mob Humor is filled with classic dead-pan moments like those — and they are a big part of what make us “Mafia lovers.” Those quotes alone are worthwhile, but author Malcolm Kushner goes quite a bit deeper. One of the funnier chapters is “Headline Hits,” which shows how the New York papers vie to come up with the best Mob-pun headlines. A couple of examples are “Yule Be Sorry, Rat Squeals on Gotti Over $50 X-Mas Gift,” and “Meat Shop Mob Guy Will Never Loin.” Kushner even reproduces the little two or three paragraph articles that these witticisms were created for.

I liked the “Mob Q & A” sections a lot as well. There are both mobster and “mobster women” sections — and they have a bit of “old Vegas” to them. Here are a few examples:

Q: How many mobsters does it take to throw a man down the stairs?
A: None, he fell.

Q. How many mobsters does it take to open a beer?
A: None. It should be open when his wife brings it.

And now for a couple from the female perspective:

Q: Why do mistresses fake orgasms?
A: They think mobsters care.

Q: What’s a mobster’s idea of honesty in a relationship?
A: Telling you his real name.

Quite a bit of the book is taken up with little vignettes from the dozens of Mob movies made over the years. The chapter for me was the one titled “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.” As the author puts it, “Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.”
There are quite a number of these, but one that made me laugh out loud was reported in the May 3, 1999 edition of the Palm Beach Post in Florida. The article reported that mobsters in Taiwan were offering to pay tuition for needy students who would agree to work for them after graduation. It seemed that they needed accountants, lawyers, and other professionals in their business.

The Official Book of Mob Humor is pretty funny, no question about it. The book even has a forward by a man who could only be called “The Teflon Rat,” Henry Hill. Geez, the guy even has a website. I don’t know. I always thought Tony Soprano was one of the most complex characters ever created on TV. But when you get right down to it, the real stuff with these guys isn’t funny at all. I have mixed feelings about this book.

But it definitely intrigued me, which is why I picked it up in the first place. I imagine there are quite a number of people out there who may have the same curiosity. The Official Book of Mob Humor is published by Robert D. Reed Publishers.

Article first published as Book Review: The Official Book of Mob Humor by Malcolm Kushner on Blogcritics.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Review:Outside The Lines by Amy Hatvany

Seattle-area author Amy Hatvany’s latest novel is titled Outside The Lines, which makes perfect sense after reading it. The book is one of those which raises a number of questions, not all of them easily answered. Many of the issues brought up in the book do indeed fall “outside the lines,” because they are so personal. As a reader, some of them mirror situations I have been faced with just this past few months — so it definitely struck a chord.

Eden West is a 30-year old Seattle woman trying to come to grips with some very difficult issues. When she was just ten years old, she found her father lying on the bathroom floor in a pool of blood. He had slashed his wrists, out of desperation and painful mental illness. The suicide attempt led to her parents eventual divorce, and he all but disappeared from Eden’s life.

Over the years, she had heard various stories of him living on the streets, and struggling with his mental illness. When we catch up with Eden, she is running her own catering business, which is doing quite well — and has dreams of opening her own restaurant. After a health scare with her mother, Eden decides she wants to try and find her father, and hopefully begin the process of moving past that horrific day two decades prior.

With this in mind, she begins her search in one of the downtown Seattle homeless shelters. With the help of the understanding and helpful director, Eden’s quest becomes more and more real. It is at this point where the title really comes into play. By delving into the issues of mental illness, and homelessness, we are faced with questions which simply do not have easy answers.

Keeping things interesting on another level, there is a budding romance between Eden and the homeless shelter director, Jack. As a Seattle native, I personally enjoyed Amy’s use of various local landmarks throughout the story. Although they really do not add or detract from the story itself, the use of them adds a special bit of a personal touch.

Outside The Lines is Amy Hatvany’s third novel, and has been chosen as a Target Club Pick — which is a bit of an achievement for a local author. The book is available through a number of sources, including publisher Washington Square Press.

Article first published as Book Review: Outside The Lines by Amy Hatvany on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

DVD Review: Battlefield Detectives

The Acorn Media Group specializes in packaging British television shows for the American DVD market. Of course, that is not all they do - the company also releases a great deal of educational material. In the case of Battlefield Detectives, Acorn has put together a three-DVD box set that offers the best of both worlds.

The Athena imprint is the home Acorn uses for its educational releases. Last year the company put out a couple of excellent documentary sets; The Making of the President: The 1960s, and Joseph Campbell: Mythos III.

Battlefield Detectives could be considered English historical programming. Although the show aired on The History Channel in the United States, it was produced by the ITV Studios - based in both London and Manchester.

The Battlefield Detectives set contains all nine episodes from the first season of the series (2003). As the name implies, the program investigates famous battles fought over the centuries by using three-dimensional computer models, maps, artifacts, and (in later years) actual footage. There are a great many dramatic re-enactments utilized as well.

One of the series highlights is its use of experts in a numerous fields, including geologists, climatologists, firearms experts, forensic scientists, and even psychiatrists. Taken together, all of this information provides very deep background for each of the battles discussed.

The historical sweep of the series certainly cannot be faulted. The first episode “Who Got Lucky at Hastings?” refers to the Battle of Hastings fought October 14, 1066. This was a decisive event in the Norman conquest of England, during which the English King Harold II was killed. Duke William II of Normandy emerged victorious, becoming King William I, the first Norman King of England. Using modern management theory the episode theorizes which of the two leaders was actually the better.

It must have been quite a task to choose just nine battles from nearly 1,000 years of history. The series progresses through the 15th Century Battle of Agincourt, the sinking of the Armada in 1588, the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War in 1854, Custer’s Last Stand (1876), the Gallipoli disaster (1915), and finally Vietnam War during the 1960s.

There is a wealth of information contained in this set, and it is a truly fascinating way to learn about these pivotal events. Bonus features include a 16-page viewers guide, biographies of the major military leaders featured in the series, and online companion features at the Athena website.

All in all, this is a very satisfying set on several levels, and as is usually the case with Acorn Media product, very affordably priced. Although I hate the term “info-tainment” and what it implies, in this case it would not be inappropriate. Battlefield Detectives is both educational and entertaining - which is not an easy task. I am hoping that Athena will release the second and third seasons of this excellent program at some point in the near future.

Article first published as DVD Review: Battlefield Detectives on Blogcritics.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Music Review: Gidon Kremer - Edition Lockenhaus [5CD Box Set]

Although Gidon Kremer’s five-CD Edition Lockenhaus has been available for a couple of months now, it well worth discussing for fans of classical “new music.” This past year marked the 30th anniversary of the chamber music festival co-founded by violinist Gidon Kremer and Pastor Josef Herowitsch in the Austrian village of Lockenhaus.

The first Lockenhaus festival took place way back in 1981, which Kremer considered “a home with open doors” for the musical community he hoped to build. It was certainly an excellent choice, and has paid off handsomely. The various performances collected on this set include a huge variety of supporting musicians. A full listing here would be a bit much, but a few of the well-known names include Gerard Causse, Thomas Zehetmair, Heinz Holliger, Robert Levin, and Julius Berger, among many others.

The first disc of the set focuses on previously unreleased recordings from 2001 and 2008. These feature Sir Simon Rattle and Roman Kofman conducting Kremerata Baltica in performances of Strauss’s “Metamorphosen” and Messiaen’s “Trois petites Liturgies de la Prescence Divine.” For U.S. fans, don't let the “foreign” names throw you; this is beautiful music, played with a brilliance one may not normally expect in such a festival setting.

The remaining four discs were previously released on ECM as Edition Lockenhaus Volumes 1/2 and 4/5. These performances were recorded back in the '80s—1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, and 1986. Those sets have been out of print for years now, so their reissue has been highly anticipated by fans.

One of the more notable aspects of each festival has been a focus on certain composers. Discs two through five are concerned with the music of Cesar Franck, Andre Caplet, Francis Poulenc, Leos Janacek, Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Erwin Schulhoff.

While there is obviously an enormous amount of material to choose from here, I found the fourth disc, which is devoted solely to the music of Shostakovich, especially noteworthy. The 22:22 “String Quartet No. 12 op. 138” features the violins of both Kremer and Thomas Zehetmair, the viola of Nobuko Imai, and the violoncello of Boris Pergamentschikow. It is quite an outstanding piece.

The 60-page booklet included in the set is printed in both German and English, and contains in-depth discussions of each composition. The original liner notes to the Edition Lockenhaus 1/2 and 4/5 are also included. This is a marvelous set of music, and a very impressive package overall. To put it simply, ECM have done it again.

Article first published as Music Review: Gidon Kremer - Edition Lockenhaus [5CD Box Set] on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Music Reviews: Autistici - Detached Metal Voice & Slow Temperature; Various Artists: Autistici Reworked - Resonating Wires

Autistici is the musical alter ego of David Newman, who also happens to run the Audiobulb record label. Newman is based in Sheffield, which is a long way away from London, New York, Los Angeles, or even Seattle—where I am writing from. But good music is never confined to geographic locations, as we all know. Even in this global internet world there is a tendency, however, to focus on music from your “local” area. I mention this because the music of Autistici (and that of the Audiobulb label in general) seems practically unknown in the United States. So I am doing my small part to spread the word.

There are three pretty fascinating releases here which I'm addressing. The first two are Autistici recordings titled Detached Metal Voice (Early Works Volume 1) and Slow Temperature (Early Works Volume Two). The third is Autistici Reworked - Resonating Wires. This third entry contains ambient remixes by various artists of some of the later Autistici music.

As Newman himself describes the early material, it is from a time when he was exploring abstract sounds. Here is the “official” explanation of what the album is: “A collection of early works exploring the raw extrusion of the human condition. Bringing together abstract early works, Detached Metal Voice is characterized by a detached narrative, AT&T voiceovers provide threads of psychological association, rhythmic neoclassical arrangements and noise electronic jazz improvisations provide the backdrop.”

Fair enough. Now let’s move on to Volume Two: “Slow Temperature brings together archive material from 2001—2005. The collection features abstract ambience, a focus on micro-sounds and digital sculpting of audio from everyday objects.”

In all honesty—as those descriptions clearly show—this is music that is a little difficult to describe. To sum things up, though, the most obvious word people would use would probably be “dissonant.” That term is pretty loaded, though, and does not really do justice to the music at hand. Just be ready for something a little less melodic than the “usual” fare.

I remember the first time I heard John Coltrane really “go out there,” and wondering how (or why) anyone would listen to music as disconcerting as that was. Jeez—that was a live version of “My Favorite Things” recorded in 1963! Then I heard Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, and even though all of my friends hated it, I began to understand the ideas behind it all.

As Newman himself says, his appreciation for music was a growth process. It took me a while for me to understand why John Cage’s 4’33” is so cool. Although many people think it is all about silence, the piece is actually all about the audience. The discomfort and rustling of papers for four minutes and thirty-three seconds is the “song.”

Yes it is conceptual, and yes one could call it pretentious. But it is pretty damned fascinating when you understand its real point. The real point of the early works of Autistici? Despite my earlier comments, the music is not really that dissonant at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed both albums.

The one that kind of threw me for a loop, though, was the first one I actually listened to: the various artists collection Autistici Reworked. I have never been the biggest fan of remixes, but these are pretty impressive. It was a totally bizarre experience for me to hear these pretty, ambient pieces by a number of David Newman’s associates next to the early Autistici discs. Quite a difference indeed.

I commend David Newman for what he is doing with the Audiobulb label, and it seems that the basic description (besides the early Autistici recordings) are what most of us would term “ambient” music. Tired of the “same old same old?” Then try something truly unique. Visit the Audiobulb label site and discover a whole new world of music.

Article first published as Music Reviews: Autistici - Detached Metal Voice & Slow Temperature; Various Artists: Autistici Reworked - Resonating Wires on Blogcritics.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

DVD Review: Poldark: The Complete Collection

The Acorn Media Group have done it again. Their release of yet another fascinating BBC production in the U.S. as a budget-priced box-set is a “must” for fans of great British television. In this case, it is Poldark: The Complete Collection - an eight-DVD set which features series one and two of the program. The term “series” is used in English television lingo the way we in the United States use the word “season.” Just by way of explanation, Poldark ran for two seasons - and this set contains all 29 episodes.

Poldark was originally shown in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theatre in 1977. The producers call it a “costume drama,” which is useful - but there is much more to the program than just the excellent re-creation of 18th Century England. The title character is Captain Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis), and the series deals with his life both in and out of the military.

One of the basic themes throughout the various episodes is that the events in Poldark’s personal life are often more difficult than those he faces as an English Captain. In the first series, we find the wounded Captain returning from the American Revolution - after escaping from a French prisoner-of-war camp. He is faced with the awful fact that not only has his father died while he was away, but that the woman he had intended to wed is engaged to another man. To add to his woes, there is also a ruthless businessman out to force the family off of their land. During the second series, the trials and tribulations continue - and Captain Poldark is faced with a number of crises that he again must face, in addition to his outstanding career as a military officer.

In watching Poldark: The Complete Collection, it is hard to believe that it was filmed way back in 1975. Even by today’s hi-def standards, the landscapes, costumes, and sets remain very impressive. Obviously, a great deal of care went into “getting it right,” and the efforts certainly paid off.

Bonus features include “Getting It Right” by star Robin Ellis - which is excerpted from his book Making Poldark. There are also cast filmographies, and a fascinating historical background on Cornwall, where most of the series takes place.

For fans of great BBC “costume dramas,” Poldark: The Complete Collection is a real treat. Acorn previously released each of the series as two separate four-DVD sets. If you did not pick those up when they were released in 2010 - then by all means, get Poldark: The Complete Collection. Not only is it “bargain priced,” but you will want to see the whole story. Maybe not all in one sitting, because the whole thing runs about 25 hours. But believe me, once you tune in - the various plots and subplots will have you hooked. I know it certainly was that way for me.

Poldark: The Complete Collection is another set of excellent British television, from the always reliable Acorn Media Group. I recommend this without hesitation.

Music Review: The Plimsouls - Beach Town Confidential

I love the introduction to this live album: “Introducing the hardest working band in show-business, The Plimsouls!” Their newly-released CD is titled Beach Town Confidential, and documents a performance at a venue called the Golden Bear in 1983. If there was ever a time to see this legendary band live, it would have been in ‘83. The performance smokes — and it just makes me sad that I was not there, because this is an album of straight-ahead rock ‘n roll that is just about perfect.

The Plimsouls were critical darlings from the start, which can sometimes be the kiss of death. But why they never caught on with the public at large still baffles me. They had the classic four-piece lineup; Peter Case (vocals, guitar, and some fine harmonica), David Pahoe (bass), Eddie Munoz (guitar), and Lou Ramirez (drums). They wrote what (to me at least) were timeless songs as well. The Plimsouls are best-known for “A Million Miles Away,” but they wrote so many other killer tracks that (for whatever reason) did not get the same exposure.

“Who’s Gonna Break The Ice?” is one example. On one hand, it is a basic 4/4 rock song about how to “get a chick.” On the other hand, though, there are all kinds of really cool rock references, especially towards surf music. I hear a tune like this and the first thing I want to do is play it for my friends. It’s like, “Can you believe that we never heard this before?”

The surf influence becomes even stronger during the guitar solo of “Fall On You.” They had many other touchstones going as well though. Although The Plimsouls were a much “poppier” band than their contemporaries The Replacements, both shared an obvious love of the music of Big Star. To this day I cannot figure out why that type of music never really caught on, but nearly 30 years later, I guess it is a bit of a moot point.

One ingredient of The Plimsouls’ music that makes it so special is the harmonica of Peter Case. He used it sparingly, so that it never became a gimmick. When he did bring it out, though, it always added a wonderful element to the music. I cannot even think of anyone besides '60s-era Brits who wanted to emulate old blues guys, who ever included harmonica solos in their music (besides Dylan, of course). My point is that on the couple of occasions that Case does give us a “harp” solo, they are not mere affectations.

A very telling point of where this band was at in 1983 is the placement of “A Million Miles Away.” It is the tenth tune, played about three-quarters of the way through their set — and the audience’s reaction is as if it is just another great song. Today, that song would be what everybody plunked down their hard-earned cash to hear, and most likely would have been the closer.

While that little point may seem minor, it actually says a lot about the band, and their fans in 1983. The Plimsouls should have gone further than the dreaded “college-rock” genre they wound up in. Their recognition as a truly great American group happened long after they had split up.

Beach Town Confidential captures The Plimsouls in their prime. Listen to a song like “Now” and tell me that this was a band that wasn't criminally ignored. This is a fantastic performance by a group who never really got their due.

I’m preaching to the choir by telling Plimsouls and Peter Case fans that this is a “must.” But for fans of Alex Chilton, Rockpile, and even early (first two albums) Joe Jackson, Beach Town Confidential is an album you need to hear.

Article first published as Music Review: The Plimsouls - Beach Town Confidential on Blogcritics.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Music Review: A Dancing Beggar - Follow The Dark As If It Were Light

The Sheffield-based Audiobulb Records label was formed in 2003 by David Newman as a home for “exploratory electronic music.” The term is intentionally vague, which was a rather smart move on his part. The variety of music the label has released over the years is fairly broad. All of the releases share one important element however - which is the stamp of approval from Mr. Newman. That is no small thing when one listens to a few of the albums he has released.

Follow The Dark As If It Were Light by A Dancing Beggar is a perfect example. A Dancing Beggar is the nom de plume of the 23-year old James Simmons, and was released last May. Being a small, independent label based in the U.K., Audiobulb’s recordings unfortunately do not get the type of attention here in the United States that they so richly deserve. If I had heard this album when it was released, it would have made my “Top 10 of 2011” list without question.

Follow The Dark As If It Were Light is actually the second full-length album from A Dancing Beggar. His first was titled What We Left Behind. James Simmons has actually made the task of describing his music fairly easy for me, as he himself refers to it as “ambient.“ When done right, ambient music is a form that I adore. Sadly, too many critics (and artists) have used that term to a point of overkill. In the case of Follow The Dark As If It Were Light though, we are presented with the very best of what ambient music has to offer.

The album is a seven-song, 52-minute experience in bliss. On each track, Mr. Simmons opens with a gentle (yet intriguing) melody, and slowly expands it. Follow The Dark is almost purely instrumental, although during “Empty Boats,” “Forget This Place,” and “Here Come The Wolves,“ we hear a blend of choir-like voices which are mixed perfectly with the music at hand. The intent is clearly to add the human voice as simply another element to the overall instrumental palette.

The very nature of the form of a record review is (quite obviously) using words to describe music. Yet with an album like this, words and phrases are so inadequate that it is almost maddening. For this listener, it is the combination of the various instruments, occasional voices, and overall texture which makes ambient music so compelling. One of the keys to it all though is to never allow one aspect to overshadow the rest.

The effect is one of almost imperceptibly changing textures. Not falling into the (probably) overwhelming temptation to emphasize one instrumental sound over another over the course of the piece seems to be one of the most difficult obstacles for the musician to overcome.

Quite frankly, to pick a “favorite” out of the seven cuts on Follow The Dark is a nearly ludicrous idea. But for the sake of illustration, I will single out the 9:47 “Returning” for special mention. A Dancing Beggar uses all of the tools at his disposal during the course of this track, and it is one I would play for anyone who ever wondered what it “is” exactly that makes ambient music so special to me.

The best ambient music is often described as taking the listener on a journey. Without question, that is the effect Follow The Dark As If It Were Light had upon me. For fans of this type of music, I have not heard anything as remarkably true to the form since the demise of the Silent Records label. I highly recommend going to the Audiobulb site to check out more of this music. It is certainly one of the best record-label sites I have seen, with a tremendous amount of information regarding not only A Dancing Beggar, but their other artists as well.

For now though, let me just say that Follow The Dark As If It Were Light stands among the finest ambient albums I have heard.

Article first published as Music Review: A Dancing Beggar - Follow The Dark As If It Were Light on Blogcritics.