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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Classical

Edgard Varese, "Ameriques" and Morton Feldman, "Piece for Four Pianos" and "Five Pianos" performed by Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo and Friends (Wergo). On Oct. 28, 1972, one of the first and most memorable results of composer Morton Feldman's long residence as UB's "Varese Professor of Music" was the performance of Feldman's otherworldly "Pianos and Voices" at a Creative Associate Concert in the Albright-Knox Gallery. The pianists were a New Music all-star team of Feldman himself, David Del Tredici, Julius Eastman, William Appleby and Lukas Foss, no less. It is, by all possible guesses, the same piece as the pedal-overtoned "Five Pianos" which, with less prominent humming, magically concludes the wonderful new disc by the Buffalo-formed Bugallo-Williams piano duo and their keyboard friends. The true star of the program, though, is Varese's 1920 "Ameriques" which, in gigantic orchestra form, is one of the most magnificent and savage masterworks in all of modern music. In Varese's own two-piano transcription discovered in 2004, it is an entirely different piece -- jagged and of daunting difficulty but of the sort that Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams routinely attempt with neither hubris or difficulty but rather total nonchalance. A beautifully played and programmed disc -- and with, by the way, fine program notes from the German Reiner Peters. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4) (Jeff Simon)

*

Friederich Nietzsche, Complete Solo Piano Works performed by Michael Krucker (NCA). Yes, Virginia, Friederich Nietzsche was also a composer. He wrote 73 works in all -- mostly for piano, with some lieder -- of which about 50 have survived. Wagner laughed at his work. We have no less an authority than Cosima Wagner on that. Pianist and conductor Hans Von Bulow called Nietzsche's "Manfred Meditation" "terrible. . . the most extreme form of fantastical extravagance, the most un-uplifting and the most anti-musical that I have set eyes on in a long time." With some of the charity that Von Bulow lacked, we might now say that it sounds like a remarkably mediocre and untutored imitation of Schumann, certain for oblivion if it hadn't been written by the German philosopher who also happened to be one of the most trenchant writers of his time. Not much as music, but as a curiosity on disc, it's hard to beat. Review: 2 stars (J.S.)

*

Short Stories, American Music for Saxophone Quartet, the Ancia Saxophone Quartet (Naxos). As Buffalo knows from long experience with our own Amherst Saxophone Quartet, there is nothing a saxophone quartet cannot do when the musicians set their minds to it. The very nature of the group's sound seems to change along with the various musical styles. In an arrangement of Charles Ives' string quartet "From the Salvation Army" (bet Ives never imagined the thrift-shop connotations that title would have), the Ancia Saxophone Quartet sounds like a wind band from centuries past. In the abstract, jumpy movements of Jennifer Higdon's 25-minute "Short Stories" as well as in Michael Torke's undulating "July," the group sounds avant-garde and electronic. Music by Fred Sturm, David Bixler and Carleton Macy help round out this bargain-priced romp. Sturm's whimsical arrangement of "Jelly Roll" Morton's "Black Bottom Stomp" makes the Ancia sound like the Barroom Buzzards. Review: 3 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Gordon Getty, "The White Election, Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson," Lisa Delan, soprano, Fritz Steinegger, piano (PentaTone Classics). I do not find the austere poetry of Emily Dickinson well-suited to song. The words' beauty seems to me to lie in their austerity. (The liner notes, revealingly, describe even her love poems as "desolating.") Getty, in this well-traveled 1981 song cycle, wisely matches the poetry's no-frills tone. His settings are abstract and puritan. He steps into Dickinson's world and ushers us in there, too, by making us linger on the words instead of read them, more fleetingly, on the page. It's touching how he takes her words to heart. It's also impressive how Delan steps into her character, even dressing for a performance in period clothing. Review: 3 stars (M.K.G)

***

>Jam/Dub/Ambient

Method of Defiance, "Nihon" (Rare Noise). The latest project helmed by bassist/producer and ambient music veteran Bill Laswell finds the man collaborating with a far-flung cast of musical characters beneath the moniker Method of Defiance. In the past, Laswell has worked with everyone from John Zorn to Mick Jagger to Public Image Ltd. to Yoko Ono to Motorhead. As stylistically disparate as these artists are, Laswell always managed to bring continuity to the projects he worked on, most of it based on his tendencies toward the manipulation of ambience and his deeply held belief that virtually any genre of music can be successfully mixed with any other. Method of Defiance pairs Laswell's often heavily distorted bass motifs with the spacious and funky keyboard washes of Parliament/Funkadelic legend Bernie Worrell, electric trumpet player Toshinori Kondo, vocalist and electronics-manipulator Doctor Israel, and drummer Guy Licata. Fans of Laswell's Miles Davis pastiche "Panthalasa" will fall quickly for this genre-hopping live recording (and its accompanying DVD). It's atmospheric, evocative and, when all cylinders fire at once, transcendent music. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Jeff Miers)

***

>Jazz

Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge, The Comet's Tail: Performing the compositions of Michael Brecker (Mama). Sensational. Almost as stunning a jazz orchestra disc as the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble's "Eternal Interlude." Where Hollenbeck's disc is a sumptuous riot of color a la Maria Schneider and Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, Owens and the Jazz Surge's rendition of Michael Brecker's compositions is in the jazz orchestra lineage of Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson. It was certainly to be expected that a figure as ubiquitous and popular and prematurely lost as Michael Brecker would be memorialized by his friends. But who knew Brecker compositions like "Slings and Arrows" and, especially, "Itsbynne Reel" could be turned into orchestral pieces with this much artful wallop? It isn't just that the disc includes, as soloists, Brecker's trumpet-playing brother Randy, saxophonists Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano and Jack Wilkins, violinist Rob Thomas, vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and guitarist Mike Stern. It's that, among other things, Danny Gottlieb turns out to be such a stupendous large band drummer that he can swing 17 pieces into serious heat just with brushes. One of the year's great jazz discs. Review: 4 stars (J.S.)

*

Carlos Franzetti, "Mambo Tango: Piano Solo" (Sunnyside) and Fred Hersch "Plays Jobim" (Sunnyside). Two new solo piano discs, surprising in different and opposite ways. Unexpectedly inventive and evocative is "Mambo Tango" by Argentina-born jazz pianist Carlos Franzetti, veteran of everyone from Paquito D'Rivera and Terence Blanchard to Jane Monheit. Both his repertoire (lesser-known compositions by Gary McFarland, Clare Fischer, etc.) and his approach are often completely fresh, mixing bebop garrulity and lyric poetry. Hersch, on the other hand, is a complete musician and is one of the finer living poets of jazz piano but sounds surprisingly hidebound here and in far too much musical thrall to the compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim. To use an ancient duality, Franzetti's disc is art, Hersch's mere illustration. Ratings: Review: 3 1/2 stars for Franzetti, Review: 2 1/2 stars for Hersch. (J.S.)

*

James Moody, "4 A" (IPO). Who can ever predict survival? If, 50-some years ago someone told you that James Moody would not only be one of the last bebop survivors but one who made it to the age of 84 with instrumental authority and musical charisma intact, you'd never have guessed it. Jazz musicians in 2009 don't get much more venerable within the music itself than James Moody, who's been at it for more than half a century. He arrives for a gig at New York's Iridium club next week and on this new quartet disc, he's got a group of fellow jazz venerables worthy of him -- the great Kenny Barron on piano, Todd Coolman on bass and, the "kid" in the group, 51-year-old Lewis Nash on drums. Would you believe "Secret Love" as a stentorian blues march? A 3/4 "Bye Bye Blackbird"? A Barron/Moody duet for the ages on "East of the Sun"? Please do. Review: 3 stars (J.S.)

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