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Listening Post/ Brief Reviews of select releases

Pop

Passion Pit, “Kindred” (Columbia). There may be more famous bands to have emerged from Buffalo, but few could be considered as influential on the current alt- and indie-pop environment than Nichols School graduate Michael Angelakos’ Passion Pit. You’ve heard probably heard Passion Pit without realizing it – the group has provided the soundtrack background for all kinds of commercials, from fast food to the annoying ads that pop up when you’re trying to watch some viral You Tube video, but even beyond the obvious multi-platform commercial presence provided for the band, you can hear Angelakos’ influence any time you turn on the radio and hear a giddy encapsulation of ’80s synth-pop with contemporary electronic dance music and uber-sweet pop. (Jack Antonoff, anyone?) Last time around, Angelakos offered an unflinching and often uncomfortably raw view of his struggles with mental issues, in the form of “Gossamer,” an almost baroque assemblage of towering pop construction in the digital age. With “Kindred,” album number 3, Passion Pit’s mastermind seems to be leaving the valley of the shadow behind, focusing instead on the joys of life rather than the inevitability of dissolution and death. Much of the sonic ornamentation of the first two albums has been abandoned as well, which is a good thing – “Kindred’s” best songs stand on their own two feet based on the strength of their melodic information, rather than the vertical density of their production values. Whether premeditated or otherwise, this turns out to be an incredibly smart move, as the Angelakos influence is so pervasive in over-the-top indie/EDM hybrids that it’s already becoming a cliché. By under-doing it, Angelakos allows the listener to concentrate on the genuine likability of his compositions, rather than the glittering and sugary sonic constructions that have risen up around them in the past.  (Jeff Miers)

Classical

Joby Talbot, “Path of Miracles,” Conspirare, Craig Hella Johnson, director, (Harmonia Mundi). Conspirare pushes the limits of what a chorus can do. This is an a cappella piece – with just a touch of percussion – but you would swear you were hearing an orchestra, or electronica, or – something. It’s uncanny. The opening is a crescendo that becomes unbearable. (It will take some experimentation to get your volume controls right.) Just the nature of this piece, by British composer Joby Talbot, charts the widest range imaginable. It’s complicated, so let’s just say it is inspired by Spain’s Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, “a shrine where the border between earth and heaven is said to disappear.” The music suggests the martyrdom of James, the path of pilgrims who for centuries have come to the cathedral, and the miracles attributed to James. The texts, collated by Robert Dickinson, involve Bible passages, medieval Latin texts and syncopated medieval-sounding melodies. The music is sometimes abstract, sometimes minimalist, sometimes neo-medieval, always weirdly mesmerizing. Talbot has a strange way of treating syllables, stretching them over notes in ways you do not expect, kind of the way you hear in Gregorian chant. Its more robust moments could make you think of “Carmina Burana,” and there is even an excerpt, a poem about spring, from that manuscript – which, let us not forget, was found in a monastery. The project isn’t perfect. The variety of languages challenges the listener. And Conspirare’s articulation could be sharper. You absolutely cannot catch a word without following the complex text, and it’s very easy to get lost. But you have to admire Talbot’s ambition, Conspirare’s capabilities, and the timeless portrait the music paints of the age of faith. Talbot, by the way, is the composer of the score for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” This year the Dallas opera is premiering an opera of his, on the theme of climbers lost in the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. I kind of want to go. I also sort of want to follow the Way of St. James to the saint’s shrine in the Cathedral. Every year, a hundred thousand people still do. ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Steve Reich, “Music for 18 Musicians” performed by Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman musical director (Harmonia Mundi). To be blunt and perhaps even brutal about the musical genre we’ve come to call Minimalism: the music is, by its nature, so repetitive and single-minded that it is probably not necessary for most musically literate people to hear more than say, 10 samples of it. One could perhaps keep it down to five if one wanted to be unusually draconian: at least one piece each by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, early John Adams and Michael Nyman (who was the first to apply the art term to music). And then a bonus piece by one of the four. No matter how ruthlessly you cut the number down, Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” would have to be one of the pieces every classical listener should hear. Ashley Capps, the annotater here writes two things that are inarguable: 1) “Simply put, ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ is a masterpiece.” and 2) “This beautiful and powerful recording is nothing less than an extraordinary performance of a timeless work of art.” Capps also calls it “music that has had a deep and profound influence on shaping and transforming our culture.” Hyperbolic, perhaps, but I’m inclined to let that pass too. It once occurred to me that this might well pass as background music in heaven should there be such a place and should background music be desired for it. What distinguishes this performance by the New York-based Ensemble Signal is both a precision and a rare kind of subtlety for a musical genre where one hears that quality quite seldom. This music – mostly for wordless voices and percussion – is, to be sure, one of the great recent recordings of what the world once boldly called “New Music” (until it simply accepted and modern).  (Jeff Simon)

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David Leisner, “Facts of Life” (Azica). On top of great music, this disc boasts Buffalo connections. Guitarist David Leisner was on the jury several years ago for the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition. And David Del Tredici, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, neo-Romantic composer of the suite that gives the disc its name, was once one of UB’s Creative Associates. Now almost 80, Del Tredici is known in particular for his piano music. He hesitated to write for solo guitar, but Leisner helped shape the music, and the result is something wonderful. I will dare to call this a historic world premiere, because this piece should be able to claim a permanent place in the solo guitar repertoire. The memorably melody of the first movement harks back to earlier eras while still retaining an individual sound. The second movement is a fugue inspired by Bach, and Leisner directs the listener through it well by bringing out all the various voices. There is also a sorrowing aria touched off by a break-up, and the suite ends with a gritty flamenco complete with percussion, which the guitarist makes by drumming on the guitar. It’s music you will want to hear over and over. To fill out the disc, Leisner has also arranged the lovely Lute Suite, BWV 997, of J.S. Bach. Its fugue may have inspired Del Tredici’s, and its reeling last movement, a kind of perpetual motion, is especially enchanting. The disc ends with the world premiere recording of “Fish Tale,” a 10-minute piece for flute and harp by Osvaldo Golijov. Yo-Yo Ma performed Golijov’s “Azul” at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2013 season-opening gala. Golijov’s thing is to write about nature. Though that piece had its moments, this one has more structure and is easier to like, even if the flute grows shrill. Leisner’s performance throughout the disc is full of finesse.  (Mary Kunz Goldman)

Jazz

Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas, “Sound Prints: Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival” (Blue Note). Among those of us who haven’t been completely taken with either a Joe Lovano or a Dave Douglas disc for a while, this live collaboration from the Monterey Jazz Festival is very special indeed. It’s about as far from a perfect studio disc as can be but there is so much fire and substance to this live Monterey performance that it’s often extraordinary. The disc was dedicated to Wayne Shorter who contributed two tunes to the Lovano/Douglas Quintet5, “Destination Unknown” and “To Sail Beyond the Sunset,” Shorter pronounces himself happy with the results. “May they continue forging ahead on the trail less trodden” is his wish for the Lovano/Douglas quintet. Lovano’s penchant for putting his compositions squarely in Ornette Coleman territory is nothing if not pronounced here. He and Douglas play counterpoint all through this that is of higher temperature than most of their other recorded work. The rest of the quintet is pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda Oh and the great avant-jazz drummer Joey Baron. ½ (Jeff Simon)

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Wes Montgomery, “In the Beginning” (Resonance, two discs). It’s important to understand this: it was only after Wes Montgomery came from Indianapolis to turn jazz upside down that all that over-produced popular pap was released with his name on it. He was, like Cannonball Adderly, always a sensational musician no matter how invidious was the musical use that his phenomenal gifts were put to. What you have here, with the exception of a couple early Montgomery Brothers studio recordings recorded by Quincy Jones for Columbia in June 1955, is a lot of newly discovered live Wes from 1949-1958, almost one whole disc of it recorded at Indianapolis’ Turf Club in August 1955. What these homemade recordings lack in modern and professional sound (oh, how you’ll yearn for Wes recorded more prominently at that Turf Club gig), they make up for in ferocious playing. The abundant notes to this package too are by many writers and are uncommonly full and revealing, as well they should be about what is, essentially, an origin story of one of jazz’s greatest guitar innovators. As Quincy Jones points out in his notes, Wes Montgomery was already doing all the things that made him famous: using his thumb so distinctively, playing octaves etc. (Jones: “I’d wonder about him working in that factory with his hands, you know?”). Some of these musicians are going to be unfamiliar but that doesn’t mean they’re not good – in particular a tenor player named Pookie Johnson and a drummer named Sonny Johnson. What they play is prime vintage ’50s mid-Western bebop, not overflowing with ideas on fire the way Wes was but playing fast and hot in something on dry land that’s intimately related to the Great Lakes Bebop style we know a thing or two about on Lake Erie’s shores. And in his contribution to the copious notes, Pete Townshend amazedly wonders how much you can hear on one blues that reveals how great a rock guitarist Wes Montgomery might have been. Great previously unissued jazz from a master in his mid-50s emergence.  (Jeff Simon)