Listening Post: Bleachers, Somi, ‘Shofarot Verses,’ Schuman sonatas, Stile Antico - The Buffalo News

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Listening Post: Bleachers, Somi, ‘Shofarot Verses,’ Schuman sonatas, Stile Antico


Bleachers, Strange Desire (RCA). Jack Antonoff was able to craft the vanity project known as Bleachers’ “Strange Desire” because he’s a got a good day gig. As guitarist with fun., Antonoff helped to craft an elegant marriage of “Glee” cast recordings and ’80s synth pop with an introspective songwriter’s edge, and scaled platinum heights. As Bleachers, however, he doesn’t even attempt to hide his nigh-on-creepy fascination with ’80s pop by marrying it to anything. This album could’ve been released in 1985. “Strange Desire” is a love letter to an era Antonoff can only possibly have known as a toddler. Clearly, he’s obsessed. From the cover art, depicting Antonoff slumped on a bed looking far too much like Mark Almond of Soft Cell for comfort, through the singalong Thompson Twins paean “Rollercoaster,” through various Duran Duran/early Tears For Fears pastiches with titles like “Reckless Love,” “I Wanna Get Better” and “Like A River Runs,” Antonoff never lets the facade slip. He does not appear to be kidding. It’s all a bit ridiculous, but “Strange Desire” is abundantly stuffed with incredibly catchy hooks and shameless retro synth flourishes that it’s tough to resist its charms. They are fleeting charms, to be sure. But they’re charms, nonetheless. ΩΩ½ (Jeff Miers)

New African Jazz

Somi, “The Lagos Music Salon”(Okeh). Labeling this music is no easy task. Despite its frequently exotic rhythms, it’s more like jazz than anything else. Despite singer and songwriter Somi’s Ugandan and Rwandan descent, she was born in the United States while her father was a student here, moved at 3 to Zambia and back to Illinois, where she grew up in the late ’80s. Hugh Masakela has been one of her mentors and she calls what she does “New African Jazz,” which seems appropriate and nicely evocative of its difference from conventional jazz. Her voice is lovely and so is she, and in this disc for the increasingly wide-ranging and revived Okeh label she is paying tribute to what Teju Cole calls in the notes “the leading cosmopolis of the Black Atlantic. With a population now in excess of twenty-one million, it is the nerve center of all things Nigerian, the mad beating heart of West Africa, the largest city on the continent and a glimpse, both alarming and exciting, of the collective future of our urban planet.” Listening to Somi’s music after a pilgrimage there, we might all hope it’s so. The songs here are all by Somi, except for one which uses a song by Fela Kuti. Another, a collaboration with Common and Four African Women, is a striking adaptation by Somi of an uncompromised classic by Nina Simone. For all its uncompromised lyrics, it’s music in beauty’s thrall all the way through and full of vocal interpolations revealing great wit and relishing laughter, too. Somi’s songwriting is fine but it’s her voice that enchants at all volume levels and in all registers. ΩΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)


Paul Shapiro, “Shofarot Verses” (Tzadik) and Jon Irabagon with Mark Helias and Barry Altschul, “It Takes All Kinds” (Irabbagast/jazzwerkstatt). Here are two of the hippest alto saxophonists to be featured in the Hunt Real Estate Art of Jazz series at the Albright-Knox Gallery which now seems to be in quiescence for a while. Paul Shapiro continues to bring klezmer and all kinds of traditional Jewish music into places where no one suspected it was willing to go a couple of decades ago. “There was no rehearsal and most versions on this album were first takes,” Shapiro says of the wittily titled “Shofarot Verses” (a reference to Salman Rushdie’s once-scandalous novel substituting the word for music intended to be played on the shofar, the ram’s horn played during the high holidays). What’s most amazing about “Shofarot Verses” is the pairing of Shapiro with guitarist Marc Ribot, one of the more remarkable figures in current jazz and a man capable, musically, of just about anything. It begins with Shapiro’s solo version of the melody from the Yom Kippur Service and proceeds through all sorts of klezmer fusion and lord knows what else featuring great players doing variations on music with all manner of Jewish references. Jon Irabagon is the extraordinary alto saxophonist featured with the group Mostly Other People Do the Killing whom German annotater Ulrich Steinmetzger describes with dangerous wit as “bebop terrorists.” “It Takes All Kinds” is a superb disc of avant-garde jazz, by no means appropriate for listeners without a well-developed sense of adventure and a lot of patience. There’s gripping, even thrilling music from this pianoless trio whose drummer, Barry Altschul, was once crucial to the music of Anthony Braxton and the Braxton/Chick Corea group Circle. The formidable Mark Helias is their bassist. Some of it, admittedly, is more than a little boring. Nevertheless, the best of it is some of the more remarkable music of its kind to come out in a while. ΩΩΩ½ for Shapiro, ΩΩΩ for Irabagon. (Jeff Simon)


Robert Schumann, Three Sonatas for Violin and Piano performed by Jennifer Frautschi, violin; John Blacklow, piano (Albany). The title of this disc actually reads “Two Three Sonatas for Violin and Piano” with the “two” crossed out. Most people think Schumann wrote just two sonatas. The third is a kind of hybrid. He finished it near the end of his life, shortly before he went into the mental asylum, and it incorporated two movements he had written for a collaborative sonata, a tribute to violinist Joseph Joachim that also included movements by Brahms and Albert Dietrich. (Dietrich, now forgotten, is lucky to find himself in such company.) The Violin Sonata No. 1 is the best-known, and it’s divine, but it’s my guess that these other two, with repeated hearings, will equal it. The slow movements are enchanting and the other movements, shot through with that overcharged Schumann imagination, also keep your attention every step of the way. Frautschi and Blacklow make a good team. She played the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra a few years ago, and News Critic Emeritus Herman Trotter praised her for “dazzling technique and stunning power.” Blacklow helps her shine. I like how Albany Records is exploring this under-explored music. ΩΩΩ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Stilo Antico: From the Imperial Court: Music for the House of Hapsburg (Harmonia Mundi USA). This is wonderful Renaissance music, most of it by Flemish and Spanish composers. A lot of it can make you think of Palestrina, with that weightless feeling as if the melodies are floating down from heaven. There also are harmonic surprises, as if the music is playing tricks with your ear. One of the most gorgeous pieces is “Loquebantur variis linguis” by Thomas Tallis, with interludes of glorious polyphony linked by lines of Gregorian chant. A “Jubilate Deo” by Cristobal de Morales also strikes a majestic note. There is a secular curiosity I loved: Jacob Clemens Non Papa’s “Carole magnus eras,” a paean to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. It ends: “Rome is yours, Europe is yours, Asia and all of Africa. What more? You cannot: You have everything.” The liner notes are dense, and it’s hard to find your way around the CD because the pieces are listed one way on the jacket and in another order – the actual order – in the notes. Still it’s a beautiful disc. Stile Antico is at the top of the Renaissance a cappella scene. Their voices are seamless. ΩΩΩ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)


John Philip Sousa, Music For Wind Band, Vol. 14 performed by the Central Band of the RAF, Keith Brion, director (Naxos). God love Naxos for wanting to get performances out there of what appears to be all the music Sousa ever wrote. Volume 14 makes me want to hear all the other volumes. Though some of the minor marches and operetta overtures are forgettable, Sousa always could write a good melody. And there are real curiosities. The best is the 25-minute Fantasy called “The International Congress.” Sousa, 21 and already great, wrote it for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, to be played by an orchestra led by Jacques Offenbach, an orchestra in which Sousa played first violin. The Fantasy opens with “Yankee Doodle” and explodes into a display of patriotic airs, folk songs and classical music from virtually all the major countries of the world. “God Save the King” sits merrily alongside “The Wearing of the Green.” Sousa was half Portuguese and Spanish and half German, so it makes sense that Spanish songs with castanet sounds flank the noble Haydn melody that became “Deutschland Uber Alles.” There’s also the “Marseilleise” and the beautiful old anthem of Tsarist Russia. The grand finale is – let’s quote the notes, so you know I’m not making this up – “Sousa’s stirring setting of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ arranged in the style of Wagner’s ‘Tannhauser’ Overture.” What a tremendous and enjoyable time capsule. ΩΩΩ½ (M.K.G.)


Rachmaninoff, “Monna Vanna” performed by the Moscow Conservatory Opera Soloists, Students Choir and Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor (Ondine). Rachmaninoff esteemed this opera fragment so much that it was the only score he took with him when he fled the Bolsheviks. It was his third attempt at writing opera, and scholars consider it the best. Rachmaninoff was inspired by Richard Strauss’ success with “Salome” and also by this weird story by the popular playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. The only problem was, Rachmaninoff waited too long to apply for the rights, and they went to another composer. That is a pity. I wish Rachmaninoff had finished this. The plot is romantic and crazy – you can see why a Russian would be drawn to it. Pisa, Italy, is under siege, and the mysterious attacker offers peace on one condition, that the Pisa military commander’s wife come to him, alone, naked under her cloak. She agrees. It turns out she knew him before she knew her husband, and – well, forget it, why torture ourselves, because the opera leaves off when she is defying her husband to leave on her mission. Rachmaninoff’s music follows a Wagnerian music-drama model, without traditional arias or ensembles, but it could often suggest Tchaikovsky. The music’s moods are vivid; you can often sense what dialogues are about even without checking the text. Ashkenazy shows great skill, moving the drama along while letting it breathe. Rounding out the disc are a half dozen of Rachmaninoff’s songs, sung to piano accompaniment, including the famous “Vocalise.” The singers throughout the disc are excellent. ΩΩΩΩ (M.K.G.)

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