Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski
Drummer Matt Wilson has played with almost everyone in contemporary jazz with any musical ambition whatsoever. It’s in his own groups that we discover how powerful a jazz leader he can be. His pianoless quartet has played in the Albright-Knox Art of Jazz series and made remarkable records.
The addition here of pianist John Medeski, of the popular Medeski, Martin and Wood, requires a pianist brilliant enough to understand how comfortable Wilson’s saxophone and cornet front lines (Jeff Lederer and Kirk Knuffke, here) are with functioning in a linear way without a piano. What’s so often required, then, of Medeski is a lot more free-playing and abstract garnishment than one usually associates with him. On something like “Get Over, Get Off and Get On,” Medeski comes up with some abstract gospel shouting, but on a relative Duke Ellington rarity like “You Dirty Dog,” Medeski, before his angular solo, has all sorts of splendidly acidulous, ominous and even odd contrapuntal ideas of what to play behind Knuffke and Lederer.
You don’t exactly hear contemporary bands playing Charlie Rouse’s “Pumpkin’s Delight” very often either. The most creative drummer-led ensemble since Max Roach’s terrific pianoless quartet.
– Jeff Simon
Mozart Violin Concertos
Ray Chen, violin, Christoph Eschenbach, piano
The Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra
Ray Chen has a light touch on the violin, a modest touch you could say. And he has chosen two of Mozart’s more modest masterpieces, the Violin Concertos No. 3 and 4. Mozart wrote them while still a teenager, a time of his life when he was better known as a violinist than a pianist. That is the Mozart whose spirit comes alive here. The liner notes quote a musicologist reflecting: “I picture Mozart himself as the soloist, playing on his Mittenwald concert instrument and taking a mischievous delight in the theatrical rondo passages.”
The highlight of the two concertos is the slow movement of No. 3, one of the great violin romances of all time. Chen’s quivery lightness on the 1702 “Lord Newlands” Stradivarius makes the music sound fragile and utterly lovely. His cadenzas are his own. Unfortunately, as is the case with many violin cadenzas, I found them too long and rather too grating. Cadenzas are there to add to the music, not just to display the virtuosity of the player. Otherwise the music is well played and balanced nicely by the orchestra of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. Chen has another good collaborator in Christoph Eschenbach, a veteran artist who had a hand in discovering soprano Renee Fleming.
– Mary Kunz Goldman
The Sacred Spirit of Russia:
Music of Gretchaninov, Kastalsky and Rachmaninov
Conspirare conducted by Craig Hella Johnson
With the media spotlight of the world on Russia for a while, there are stories to tell beyond ones about skaters, skiers and lugers or about hotel rooms with yellow water and no shower curtains or about anachronistic sexual discrimination or about arguments on political priority between members of Pussy Riot. There is, in fact, Russian classical music besides Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Glinka, Gliere, Miasakovsky and Balakirev.
There is, in fact, what we can hear on this disc – a beautiful Russian tradition of sacred choral music. What we know in the West is chiefly Rachmaninov’s sublime “Vespers,” one of the most gorgeous pieces of religious choral music in any Western tradition. You’ll find only one choral piece by Rachmaninov on this disc. What else you’ll find is a rich and beautiful Russian orthodox choral music tradition from composers unknown to most of us: Kastalsky, Gretchanninov, Tchesnokov, Ilyashenko, Kedrov. In short, you’ll find beautiful music here from a largely unknown tradition performed here by Conspirare.
Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2
[Chandos, 3 CDs]
Before I heard this CD, I knew Bavouzet mostly through his Haydn albums. They were crisp and a lot of fun, with pictures of the Gallic Bavouzet nose to nose with busts of the composer. Bavouzet has a cheerful, challenging look, an expression that bears out also in his playing. You will never hear more crisp, more bracing Beethoven than this. Particularly in the simpler sonatas, which have a kind of Mozartean sound, Bavouzet brings out the grace of the music’s architecture.
I am not sure that his approach always works. Though the slow movement of the “Waldstein” is enchanting – Bavouzet’s no-frills approach emphasizes the music’s simple magic – the last movement seems dry, each note so distinct. The interludes when the music could sound like pealing bells come out sounding more like exercises. There were other movements – the second of the “Tempest,” for instance, or the Allegretto from the “Moonlight” Sonata – when Bavouzet’s unbending Classical style began sounding mechanical. Good as this is, I think it could have been better, even as I welcome Bavouzet’s sincerity and skill.
No Way There From Here
[Thrift Shop Recordings]
“They’re just working out who they are,” Laura Cantrell sings in explaining the title of her new album’s first song, “All the Girls Are Complicated.” When it comes to her music, at least, this alt-country veteran already has her own fully formed vision.
On “No Way There From Here,” the Nashville-born, New York-based singer-songwriter uses country as a base for a beguiling sound that also draws on folk and pop. It’s a good match for the grace and nuance of lyrics that never serve up trite emotion (the girls really are complicated). Cantrell delivers the songs in a clear alto that gets right to their heart, whether it’s the yearning of “Driving Down Your Street” or the melancholy of the title track. And for all the gentle, beguiling nature of that voice, the brisk “Beg or Borrow Days” also reveals a steely resolve.
– Nick Cristiano
Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Angel Olsen’s first full-length, 2012’s “Half Way Home,” was a hushed acoustic affair, intimate and riveting. Olsen had previously worked with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and that album contained some of his old-time folk sensibility. “Burn Your Fire for No Witness,” on the other hand, is much more aggressive but no less riveting. The moments of sober quiet – the haunting “Iota” or the Leonard Cohen-esque “White Fire” – contrast with the bitter cries of “High & Wild,” “Hi-Five” and “Stars,” songs for reverberating electric guitars playing insistent chords.
These are songs of discomfort, but Olsen is at home in them.
– Steve Klinge