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Listening Post: Phish, Terry Riley, Daniel Smith, Dave Douglas, Brahms and Clearfield


Phish, “Amsterdam” (JEMP/eight-CD box). 1997 was a pivotal year for America’s greatest jam band, one during which a long and arduous study of primal funk – Phish rehearsed arduously along with live recordings of the Meters in an attempt to school themselves in the form – yielded a kinder, gentler and more groove-oriented version of the band. These shows at the infamous Paradiso in Amsterdam are among the very finest shows the band has played to date, and from the moment disc one kicks off with “Soul Shakedown Party,” you can hear the results of the funk matriculation on the interplay between Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, Jon Fishman and Mike Gordon. This not to suggest that Phish had lost its experimental and improvisational acumen – to the contrary, the 30-minute “Stash” and the 16-minute “David Bowie” documented here are the most far-out and searching-infused versions of these songs we’re ever likely to hear. The vocal harmonies – something the band has struggled with in the concert setting at various points in its career – are particularly solid during these Amsterdam shows. This is a must-have for every serious Phish-head.  (Jeff Miers)

Classical New Music

Terry Riley,”Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collection” performed by the Kronos Quartet and guests Joan Jeanerenaud and Jennifer Culp on cello and Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares (Nonesuch). So many of the greatest jazz and classical innovators of the last decades of the 20th century are now in their 80s. Sonny Rollins is going to be 85 in a few months and Terry Riley is this month celebrating his 80th birthday. This celebration of Riley’s music is, by far, the major recording event of the occasion. The Kronos and Riley have been working together for 35 years. Kronos founder David Harrington – one of the major forces for post-modern and international music in our time – says of brilliant proto-minimalist Riley “there is no other composer who has added so many new musical words to our vocabulary, words from so many corners of the musical world …In a crazed world laced with violence and destruction he has consistently been a force for peace … Terry sets the standard for what it means to be a musician in our time.” Riley says of Harrington and Kronos “each of our projects together was launched by conversations with both David and me riffing on ideas. I always came away from these planning sessions feeling exhilarated, and these energies would soon get my pen moving toward a melody or a rhythmic pattern – or in the case of ‘Salome Dances for Peace’ a five-quartet cycle. David has this gift, a unique catalytic effect on so many collaborators. Because of this work, we have this astounding body of work created for Kronos over the years.” There are no composer/performer collaborations more imposing than this in our era. Which are sampled on this wonderful disc: the newly recorded “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector” dates from 1980. “One Earth, One People, One Love” from 2002, and “Lachrymosa – Remembering Kevin” from 1998 are being heard on disc for the first time. “Cry of a Lady” with the haunting Bulgarian chorus Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares is from 1990, and “Cadenza on a Night Plain” from 1983. Among the credos in the book we’re introduced to are: 1) Riley’s conviction that “most of the important things in American music happen in jazz” and 2) “this generally propels a lot of my musical thought: a feeling of compassion for the people who don’t have a voice, who are being beaten down by the powerful.” A unique and enduring musical collaboration perfectly celebrated here.  (Jeff Simon)


Brahms and Clearfield, “Convergences: Music for viola by Brahms and Andrea Clearfield” performed by Violist Barbara Westphal and pianist Christian Ruvolo (Bridge). Violists may not get the hoopla lavished on top violinists, cellists and pianists, but there are many fine artists among them and Barbara Westphal is one of the best. Her new release offers an intriguing musical sandwich with American composer Andrea Clearfield’s 2008 “Convergence” (commissioned by Westphal) as the filler. The bracketing bread slices are her own robust transcriptions for viola of Brahms’ Violin Sonata, Op. 78 and Cello Sonata Op. 38. Surrounded by the richer textures of Brahms’ late 19th century masterworks, Clearfield’s clearly modern “Convergence” provides an excellent pairing, with its leaner lines, its suggestion of open spaces in its clean textures, and with welcome inner contrasts provided by spiky, angular rhythmic declamations. The composer fully understands the characteristics of the viola and her music projects them eloquently, without any sense of clutter. The same can be said of Westphal’s arrangement of the Brahms Cello Sonata, where the warmth and breadth of Brahms’ original conception is faithfully intoned on an only slightly lighter textural level. Performances by Westphal and Ruvolo are excellent throughout, and have no bearing on the slight disappointment in the first movement of Brahms’ Violin Sonata. Its opening theme is one of Brahms’ most gorgeous creations and he clearly had intended it for the thinner-lined voice of the violin. The mellower speech of the viola doesn’t quite capture this movement’s unique beauty, but finds a better footing in the other two movements. The new CD is recommended for viola buffs and anyone with an inquiring musical mind. ½ (Herman Trotter)


Daniel Smith, Jazz Suite For Bassoon, (Summit Records). The bassoon has the reputation of being a kind of unwieldy instrument, so it might surprise people that this disc would be a good one for people unused to its sound. The five Baroque pieces that begin the disc, in which the bassoon is accompanied by piano and bass, have a light crossover feel. Three Scott Joplin rags are shoo-ins. The bassoon mirrors the sound of the tuba in early jazz. “The Easy Winners,” with an eloquent piano and chamber accompaniment, doesn’t sound much different from the way it did in “The Sting.” The Jazz Suite is by Steve Gray. It made me think of Claude Bolling, famous for his jazz suites in the 1980s. And entertainingly enough, Bolling had something to do with it. He called Smith, suggesting a jazz suite for bassoon, but never wrote it, leaving it up to Gray. The sly first movement, with its impeccable timing, exploits the capabilities of the bassoon and also its wit. It calls to mind Henry Mancini (one of the impressive list of musicians with whom Gray has worked). The slow movement (“Ballade”) is ultra laid-back and has a theme suggesting Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Song of India.” The last movement bops along with drums, a cheery air and quirky themes that made me think of Shostakovich’s attempts at jazz. Gray plays piano, and guitar, vibes, piano and drums add color. The musicians all have fine jazz chops. I can imagine bassoonists embracing this music, and a lot of other people getting a kick out of it.  (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Dave Douglas, “High Risk” (Greenleaf). There’s a lot of this going around these days – ambitious jazz soloists pairing up with electronicists for fantasias of electronica-and-jazz-soloist. The excellence of the playing by Terence Blanchard on his recent jazz funk disc didn’t make the resultant disc convincing. Nor is the Denny Zeitlin disc soon to be released with electronic support. From the standpoint of a jazz trumpet soloist, Dave Douglas is far less convincing than Blanchard (only once on this whole disc does he play one bent, inflected note. Ecstasy, not expressivity is more likely to be Douglas’ bailiwick.) Douglas’ quartet here is drummer Mark Guiliana, electric bassist Jonathan Maron and producer/beat maker Shigeto, all of whom are veterans of electronica. Shigeto is the middle name of electronica practitioner Zachary Saginaw, from Michigan, and the one he uses for purposes of recorded performance. “Before I got into production,” he says, “all I wanted was to be a jazz drummer.” “It’s all composed and it’s all improvised,” says Douglas of the music of this band. Which is to say it’s “a bunch of highly skilled individuals who bring themselves and their personality and their skills to the table, to attack these ideas and materials that I bring into the session.” It’s the percussion, unsurprisingly, that stands out all the way through. Douglas calls the result, a willingness to put “everything at risk,” which is bit more dramatic than necessary. But the music is consistently interesting, unlike the records by Blanchard and Zeitlin.  (Jeff Simon)

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