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Listening Post: Brief reviews of select releases

Jazz/Rock

The Greg Foat Group, “The Dancers at the Edge of Time” (JazzMan). Proof that jazz continues to grow and expand the parameters of possibility comes via the fourth effort from young British outfit the Greg Foat Group. Keyboardist, composer and arranger Foat pulled his ensemble – saxophonist Rob Mach, trumpeter Trevor Walker, drummer Tony Coote, bassist Jacob Ovhall, acoustic guitarist Henric Strall, double bassist Phil Achille and electric guitarist Marius Ptas – into an ancient church on the Isle of Wight last summer, and employed the church’s ambience as an additional musical instrument. Foat took advantage of the cathedral’s pipe organ, and the entire ensemble benefited from judicious employment of the room’s natural reverb. When all of this was added to Foat’s compositional sensibilities – which favor languorous tempos, subtle psychedelia, chord changes that take their time unfolding, written unison and harmony figures, and fiery improvisation – the result is music that, while nominally jazz, would not alienate fans of, say, Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” or even Radiohead. There is an implied reverence for the more gauzy and woozy jazz of the late ’60s and early ’70s here – all of these guys can play, but they aren’t out to burn the house down so much as throw a low-key, warm and fuzzy party in the backyard. “Dancers at the Edge of Time” is a stunning album, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with its awesomeness – rather, it courts you slowly, and then gets you drunk on a fine and elegant red wine. This is more than worth your 15 bucks, if you care at all about modern instrumental music.  (Jeff Miers)

Classical

Rossini, Petite Messe Solennelle, Accentus, Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, Ottavio Dantone, conductor (Naive). This “little solemn mass” by Rossini is his second-most famous work, after “The Barber of Seville.” It’s very good. From the nervous Kyrie to the sprightly Gloria and so on, it is highly unusual but has the touch of a master. If I stumbled onto it on WNED-FM without knowing who wrote it, I would wait it all out to find out. Its approach is flowery and leisurely. The Gloria and the Credo meander on and on. But it has lots of terrific bel canto, and what I have to say are moments of sheer beauty. Rossini appears at times to be thinking of Mozart. The Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, with its clipped strings and vigorous sense of rhythm, play up the piece’s operatic drama. The vocal soloists are masters of the score’s counterpoint and other considerable intricacies, and you can understand them. Rossini considered this Mass one of the “sins of his old age,” and shrugged it off as a kind of trifle. He wrote it not for public performance in a church setting but for private performance. The piece’s high quality and enduring popularity can stand as proof that artists sometimes do their best work when they are not trying to be great. ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Gidon Kremer, “New Seasons:” Music by Glass, Part, Kancheli and Umebayashi performed by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica (Deutsche Grammophon). For a few decades now many of us have been emphasizing the correspondence between the composers of what we’ve long been calling “minimalism” (since Michael Nyman first applied the art world’s term to music) and the motoric regularity and repetition in music of the Baroque Era. And now, finally, there is a work by a minimalist composer that confronts that correspondence with altogether beautiful directness – Philip Glass’ violin concerto “The American Four Seasons,” a beautiful work that veritably begs to be twinned in concert and on record with Vivaldi’s beloved warhorse. The exceptional beauty and simplicity of this disc is elementary to violin soloist Gidon Kremer. “There is nothing special for me in sticking to tonal compositions,” he says. These are composers, says Kremer quoting Mauricio Kagel, who were scorned by “composers who wrote their scores for composers.” Arvo Part’s “Estonian Lullaby” is a lovely “little jewel,” as Kremer calls it. Kancheli’s lovely “Ex Contrario” for cello, keyboard and orchestra is typical of the stark, simple and singular soundscapes of a composer always deserving wider repute and Shigeru Umebayashi’s “Yumeji’s Theme” continues Kremer’s program of showing that “emotional music can be felt by and resonate with literally everyone.” Gorgeous. ½ (Jeff Simon)

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Jimmy Lopez, “Peru Negro”, “Synthesie,” “Lord of the Air” and “America Salvaje” performed by cellist Jesus Castro-Balbi and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya (Harmonia Mundi). Lopez is a fascinating figure, a 36-year-old composer born in Peru but a longtime resident of Finland and now America. He has a long-standing relationship with conductor Harth-Bedoya. “Peru Negro” (Black Peru) “created an invented folklore of sorts which bears the seal of my musical language” and, in doing so, is reminiscent of Chavez, Villa Lobos and Revueltas. “Synthesie,” he says, was inspired by “the subtle artistry of the French masters of orchestration” (think Honegger, Milhaud, Messiaen and Jolivet here, not Debussy and Ravel). “Lord of the Air” is a concerto for cello and orchestra inspired by the “majestic Andean condor.” “American Salvaje” (“Wild Americas”) makes use of Andean folk instruments and folklore. Lopez’s music is full of drama, broad musical strokes and craggy energy that never falls victim to the purely rhetorical. It is not unlike other music written in the past few decades – written for public occasions but absolutely benefiting from that rather than being corrupted by it. Hermeticism, with such music, is practically felonious.  (Jeff Simon)

Jazz

Ran Blake, “Ghost Tones” (A-Side). Among the avant-gardists turning 80 this year is jazz pianist Ran Blake, a musician whose lifetime in academe has been, frankly, the only way such an uncommercial jazz musician could have functioned. What he’s doing on this often remarkable disc is to pay tribute to an old colleague of Blake’s at the New England Conservatory of Music, the late and extraordinary composer George Russell (1923-2009), one of the greatest figures in all of post-modern jazz but one whose work – so powerfully based in his own theory of “Lydian Tonal Organization” – will always be more difficult than most nonacademic jazz musicians are usually willing to submit to. And yet, as Blake puts it, Russell’s works “are as identifiable as those of Messiaen or Strayhorn.” Even when Blake’s version of Russell’s “Living Time” completely lacks the massive power and savagery of Russell’s version with Bill Evans, it’s still evidence of an amazing jazz figure always worth performing. “George’s music always tells a story,” says Blake. “In fact, I often storyboard his pieces before I play them.” An important disc created with no small love.  (Jeff Simon)

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Julian Lage, “World’s Fair” (Modern Core). The first solo recording of the terrific jazz guitarist Julian Lage. “I always had a fantasy about doing a solo guitar project,” Lage says, but admits that as he got closer to actually recording it over a couple days last June in New York City, his whole conception of it changed. Instead of highlighting “various orchestrational aspects of guitar playing and guitar techniques,” he rejected his initial plan “to make it sound more robust or like a full ensemble” and “discovered what a rare opportunity this was for me to recalibrate my senses to one instrument and within that recalibration learn to savor the vast world of intimacy and nuance, both qualities so inherent to the guitar.” The compositions are all his except for Garry Harrison’s “Red Prairie Dawn” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When.” The playing is gorgeous all the way through. ½ (Jeff Simon)

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