Listening Post: Jonathan Wilson, Arvo Part, Beethoven, Emanuele Cisi - The Buffalo News
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Listening Post: Jonathan Wilson, Arvo Part, Beethoven, Emanuele Cisi

Progressive Pop

Jonathan Wilson, “Fanfare” (Downtown Records). It’s unfair to drop the responsibility for rekindling the late ’60s/early ’70s folk-rock-prog-pop explorations of the Laurel Canyon set on the doorstep of one single musician. But that’s exactly what has happened to singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Jonathan Wilson since the 2011 release of his debut effort, “Gentle Spirit.” So ably did Wilson’s music echo the heady air of the days when ’60s psychedelia gave way to ’70s singer/songwriter fare that Wilson found himself being compared to everyone from Crosby Stills & Nash and Jackson Browne, to Moby Grape and the Grateful Dead. “Gentle Spirit” was so strong that it actually made the hyperbole surrounding it seem understated. Now Wilson’s back with album No. 2 – the one that might make or break his reputation. Happily, “Fanfare” is twice the album that “Gentle Spirit” was. Produced by Wilson – and largely performed by the man as well – the album also features cameos from a host of Wilson admirers, among them Crosby, Nash, Browne, Father John Misty, members of Wilco, Dawes, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Wilson doesn’t need all of this star power to make great music, but when Crosby & Nash add their voices to the heavenly harmonies propelling “Her Hair Is Growing Long” toward the sublime, you see that Wilson is clearly his own generation’s representation of that most epic of periods in 20th century American popular song. He belongs in this kind of company. The guy is the real deal, plain and simple. Recorded at Wilson’s own Los Angeles studio wholly on analog equipment, “Fanfare” is a considerably lush and wonderfully spacious recording. The songs were built from Wilson’s playing on a 9-foot Steinway grand piano on up, and that piano serves as the album’s cornerstone, as Wilson assembles ornately orchestrated overdubs around it, in the process reminding us of another pop auteur from Los Angeles with the same last name. (Brian, definitely, but also Dennis who made “Pacific Ocean Blue”). The majority of “Fanfare’s” songs clock in well past the five-minute mark, with several of them exceeding seven minutes in length. None of this is wasted time, spent on excess or blind noodling – this music moves with purpose and clear-headed intent toward an air of suspended, dreamlike beauty. Simply, consistently and compellingly outstanding, Wilson’s “Fanfare” manages to celebrate the past without sounding stuck in it. ΩΩΩΩ (Jeff Miers)


Emanuele Cisi, “Where or When” (MaxJazz). “I’ve always loved the pure, bare essence of the sax-bass-drums trio in jazz” writes Italian tenor saxophonist Emanuele Cisi in the notes to this excellent pianoless trio disc with bassist Joseph Lepore and drummer Luca Santaniello. “In the trio, every molecule of sound is essential and can express music in many, even opposite, directions.” There’s no question that the Italian player’s sound on tenor is reminiscent of the greatest of all masters of the pianoless saxophone trio, Sonny Rollins. But so too is a musician steeped in Coltrane (whose version of “But Not for Me” inspired Cisi’s) even though his playing on soprano isn’t very much like Coltrane at all. Warne Marsh too is “one of my heroes” he says which reinforces what Branford Marsalis is quoted as saying in the notes about his friend and fellow tenor/soprano player: “While a great saxophone player, he is an even better musician.” On the basis of this, the 49-year old saxophonist deserves a major reputation over here too. ∆∆∆½ (J.S.)


Arvo Part, “Fur Anna Maria: Complete Piano Music” performed by pianist Jeroen Van Veen (Brilliant Classics, two discs). The mystic music of the great Estonian master Arvo Part has become, in its intense minimalist spirituality, almost as familiar, in its way, as the music of any living contemporary classical composer. Certainly some of his pieces – most notably “Fratres” – have been performed countless times in many different instrumentations (a whole disc of “Fratres” once, in fact, in different instrumentations). What we have here on this two-disc set are the two different manners of the 78-year-old master at different times in his career: one whole disc of the spare, haunted and brilliant piano music of the contemporary master after 1976 that is familiar to us (including a version of “Fratres”) and another disc of piano music largely from Arvo Part in the ’50s before his radical change in technique and musical perspective. What is most fascinating about composer Part – before his musical “conversion” (as it were) – is that it progressed from neoclassical tonality to serialism and collage without ever quite resting for long on a place indicating the great and deeply moving composer he would turn out to be. There’s interesting music from Part in the ’50s here, to be sure, but his radical departure in 1976 was indeed quite radical. Performance here by Dutch pianist and composer Van Veen is excellent. ΩΩΩ½ (Jeff Simon)


Beethoven, Piano Sonatas Vol. 3, Nos. 15 (“Pastorale”), 16 and 21 (“Waldstein”) performed by Jonathan Biss (Onyx). In any cycle of Beethoven sonatas by a young pianist (Biss is in his early 30s), some of the discs are of greater weight than others. In the third volume of Jonathan Biss’ excellent Beethoven cycle, we have two of Beethoven’s experimental sonatas from 1801 capped off by a performance of the “Waldstein,” one of Beethoven’s crowning (and best known) achievements. What has impressed listeners about Biss all along is that he is straightforward no-nonsense piano virtuoso, serving some of the greatest music ever written for the instrument and imposing nothing foreign upon it. That doesn’t mean, though, he’s incapable of personality, even eccentricity, which you’ll hear here in his rendering of Beethoven’s comic Sonata no. 16 in G. His reading of the “Waldstein “ spares none of the fireworks and yet imposes no violence. An eminently worthy cycle continues. ΩΩΩ (J.S.)

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