Album Review/Live Review: Steve Hudson Chamber Ensemble Debut: Galactic Diamonds (2010.12.06)

This debut album by Steve Hudson (piano) and Jody Redhage (cello), Zack Brock (violin), and Martin Urbach (percussion) will tickle the fancy and delight. It’s not the jazz I’m used to listening to [see Tomasz Stanko Quartet] but it’s an imaginative and joyful romp through a lovely mélange of instrumentation. Catch them on their next trip to Baltimore when you can hear them live. These Brooklyn-dwellers would, I think, eagerly pop in at Metro Gallery for a gig, as well as return to the fantastic An Die Musik.

While I see this album as being the pale-moon reflection of the splendid sun of  their performance in An Die Musik’s premiere acoustic wonder-room, I do think it’s a worthy one to add to your collection. Even the musicians were excited by the possibilities that An Die Musik offered to their sound – that’s why they’ll come back.

This is venturesome yet affable jazz at its best: A little blue-glass, a little rock and roll, a little scat, a turn at tango. How does Galactic Diamonds offer such a genre-blending sound? Try the diversity of the players.

Consider Zack’s quote from a Strings mag interview: “I never drink wine before I play. But a sip of whiskey works. It’s the Kentucky in me.” I tell you he poured out this “Kentucky” from himself on Wanderin’ – you’d swear you were on a front porch drinking bourbon nice and slow and neat.

Zack Brock, hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “the great bright hope for jazz violin” does deliver. He and Jody have splendid onstage chemistry you demand of the best in trio musicians. And they add another element sometimes missing: sheer joy.

Then you have percussionist Martin Urbach who does most of his wonders on the cajón. That’s a box drum like you see in Flamenco and South American music. No surprise here, Mr. Urbach is tapping his Peruvian roots. He also isn’t above playing a stainless steel Nalgene bottle with water in it. This is in the same piece where Steve Hudson ditches piano for the charm of the melodica. No, despite his apologies to the contrary, he does not lose “cool points” with this reviewer for trotting out the blow-organ.

We’ve already touched on some of Jody Redhage’s strong points here. She’s glorious and giddy here. She’s spot-on responsive to all the ensemble’s playing.  She’s better than when we heard her last year. Her vocals have grown stronger, deepening with added control and better projection. Since you missed her with Steve Hudson, don’t miss her Fire in July tour: June 26 at An Die Musik.

Above all, Steve Hudson’s piano playing makes you think he’s “keeping it simple” while offering a treat of rhythmic tensions and light melodies. Think effervescent, lively music that brightens the day. This album can be like a whippet in your stable: a fast-paced pick-me-up.

Regarding the track “PG” you’ll wish you could see the movie that would use it as an opening scene’s soundtrack. My favorite tracks are “Mingus Moon” and “Tune With Tango.”

“Tune for Tango” is also one of their live performance winners where it shines with a real snap: Caterwauling-turns-sensuous strings, handslaps, cheekslaps even castanets. Urbach even slams the whole cajón on the floor for extra punctuation.

These skilled players are the opposite of pretension. After the show, we knocked back a beer and talked Skid Row and Butthole Surfers. Capital folk. Let’s welcome them back soon.

If you like: Time for Three, you’ll like Steve Hudson Chamber Ensemble.

Where/when to listen: Play Galactic Diamonds during a long leisurely brunch on a Sunday morning. This festival atmosphere is best for daytime. Try it on a car trip in the country. Or play it on a late afternoon when you’re in need of a smile.

How to buy: go to http://wwww.cdbaby.com/cd/shce

[Author’s note: Don’t forget Jody Redhage and Fire in July play An Die Musik on June 26. Two sets: 8 pm and 9:30 pm.]

Label: Groovaholic Music

Releaste date: Jun 11 2010

Track list:

  1. Tune with Tango
  2. Keep It Simple
  3. Speak Out
  4. Song For John Lennon
  5. PG
  6. Galactic Diamonds
  7. Para
  8. Moving On
  9. Funky Hobbit
  10. Wanderin’
  11. Mingus Moon

Live Review: John Adams with the NSO; Leila Josefowicz Breaks Out Six String Electric Violin (2010.05.20)

Leila Josefowicz kicks arse. She broke out the “Violectra” for John Adams Dharma at Big Sur and you’re glad she’s Kerouac… rather than someone declaiming in best Beat tone Jack Kerouac’s words over the music. (That was Adams’ first idea for this orchestral work. Thank God Adams saw Tracy Silverman playing electric violin at an Oakland jazz club). It’s the sole reason that Leila’s Violectra came into being. It was born to play this concerto.

Dharma at Big Sur is a violin concerto about arrival. It’s about forsaking the East Coast for the West Coast. It’s not just about the cliffs, it’s the emotional shock, the visceral mental shift that hits with a salty, breathless slap at the edge of the Pacific coastline’s steep drops. That was Adams’ journey back in ’71. He shares it with us here.

Josefowicz’ violin is the perfect rhapsode in the midst of the National Symphony Orchestra’s instrumental chorus. The open: a dim orchestral hum, like a single ray of light expanding, mounts to roar – the sound of arrival. Leila’s tone is so clear and round it departs from the usual violin concerto role and becomes a sitar and throbs like an oud.  She captures the mystery of reflection that silences the soul who tries to talk about Big Sur’s upper reaches while still on the ledge. And then she bays like a wolf when the night is clear.

The principal violinist leads off the sighing cries of the other violins before surrendering to an echoing solitude as Leila plays on the bridge. The harp twangs, and the orchestra becomes a living wind. Triangle and almglocken lend a touch of gamelan to this pure, glistening sound. Leila enters again with piano enjambments and deep cello cuts.

Somewhere in all this we hear the suggestion of a Latin combo playing in the distance. Leila duels with brass. Trumpets start to bring up the horizon’s height. The piano and keyboard sampler relentlessly cast the rising crescendo, which builds such as to give you vertigo. Leila bays away on the bridge, starting to be subsumed, surrounded by the orchestra without weakening. That’s exactly what you get by going to Big Sur. Your whole little self cries silently in high-toned being: purer, more raw than your average B-more-bound existence. The wilds of Sur, its contrasts and colors, win over and you can’t help but feel reduced in size and nature into a spec of the great, the vast, the glorying pulse (even if it makes you, in paradox, feel larger than life).

This portamento riot for electric violin takes you on a great vacation. If you’re itching for a taste of the California road trip and the music, check this YouTube vid:
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Live Review: Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s Left Hand Sweeps D.C. Symphony Goers Onto Feet (2010.04.30)

Thibaudet is certainly the man for the job to enthrall and conductor Hans Graf contained the drama in excellent precision — without which we all might have drowned under the flood of French music: Debussy, contemporary composer Guillaume Connesson, and Ravel.

Guillaume Connesson peppers his work with influence from the more daring French greats that came after Debussy and Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleux, blending them into an enveloping cinematic sweep of an orchestral whole. This work: The Shining One, draws inspiration from Abraham Merrit’s 1912 fantasy novel The Moon Pool.

If you read the novel, you’d know (like Connesson) that it begs to be music:

“Closer it drew and now there came to me sweet, insistent tinklings — like pizzicato on violins of glass, crystal clear; diamonds melting into sound.”

The tone color Connesson offers is 100% pure opaline glimmer. Was he successful? Yes, the audience got up to its feet.

But, did he describe accurately in music a creature of being without shape, who glides on the sea, up from the Earth’s core? Did he capture the essence of a created thing so evil it has become sweet, seductive and utterly elusive to those who try to study its mystery? Not quite. At no point did I get that thing I know Messrs. Messiaen and Dutilleux could have struck out for us: a kind of infernal joy or savoring horror.

A character observing “the Shining One” describes music “piercing the ears with a shower of tiny lances” that “made his heart beat jubilantly — and checked it dolorously.” In sum, he concludes: “So must Satan, newly fallen, still divine, have appeared.”

Thibaudet played it well, but he was no Satan in glory before me. I don’t think Connesson gave him or the orchestra quite enough. I hope I’m not out of line to suggest that he might have risked offense of ear to reap a greater reward from this material.

But perhaps he was only trying to be literary, and not literal. I will credit Connesson for not giving us a simple whitecap thrill of borrowings from Debussy and the watery stews of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is an exceptional work, especially for a pianist like Thibaudet. His mastery of three pedals was fine, keeping notes ringing for doubling effects that made you swear he cheated with the right hand. His opening cadenza, after the call of an impressive contrabassoon, was daring, almost damning, with a tremendous thundering edge. His secret sauce is modulation. After a percussive snap and a lurch, he flowed along in rich, soft convulsions then back into rocket rhythms. There was some debate on who played it better Thibaudet this year or Chris O’Riley last year. If you heard ‘em, cast your vote below.

Now for the sweet stuff… The NSO delivered a Daphnis and Chloé suite that was as good as licking icing straight from the bowl. Graf’s lead was light. He conducted close to the body, made no extraneous movements, he’d just take a wider stance. The result? A gracious sunrise vaunted by piccolo. In short, we drank deep of a treat with no fat.

[Author’s Note: Next National Symphony must hear concerts: composer John Adams conducts. John Adams: Perspectives happens May 20-22. This week, he invites Leila Josefowicz to join him onstage for his Dharma at Big Sur. We won’t miss her!]

Live Review: Colin Currie, Hannu Lintu Take Finns To Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (2010. 04.09)

Conductor Hannu Lintu, borrowed by the BSO for the night from Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, earned rave roars from the audience for his execution of Beethoven’s Seventh. But don’t let that fool you… this man makes the case for modern music.

It’s no accident then that he shared the night with Scottish percussionist Colin Currie. I saw Colin Currie play a tour de force solo show back in December ’06 – thanks to the Shriver Hall Concerts.  His arsenal of percussive equipment took up the entire breadth of stage at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s auditorium, and he raced up and down the full spectrum without tiring. And two encores!

This time, Currie indulged us with Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Incantations. This was another BSO co-commission. The opening movement strikes with intense immediacy, as if we’re in a play that’s started at the middle… after the king’s already been dethroned and before a new one takes over. The strings lend a chorale-like backdrop to Currie’s handiwork on the xylophone. At the work’s height — the Expressivo — Currie’s vibes created a crisp, almost geometric force laid over the messy, teeming world.

Racing back and forth from vibes to xylophone and back again backed, as in the open, by violins made one question who was the “skin” — the fluid melodic being — in this music and who the “skeleton” — an impression, which stands the whole idea of percussion in a piece on its head. After all, what is percussion in most symphonic works but underpinning and punctuation? The main punctuations here came with Currie’s quick, almost comedic strikes of the chimes.

Rautavaara certainly underutilized Currie’s skills here, despite composing at Currie’s request. The overall impression of the work, while engaging, never coalesced into something truly stratospheric — which I maintain is the necessary condition of calling something an “incantation.” I mean, it is about a shaman after all.

Back in the day, Jean Sibelius awarded Rautavaara a music scholarship, calling him: “the most promising Finn” on the scene. Now, Mr. Rautavaara is an advanced 81 years old and very much beloved by his countrymen. So it was perfectly just to compare the two Finns by an opener of Jean Sibelius’ famous Finlandia.

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Live Review: Philly Serves Tan Dun’s Tea, Curtis Recitals Shine

Intrepid music lovers should head North on 95, cut over onto 76 and head into Center City Philly for action. First gem: Opera Company of Philadelphia. This is the only East Coast company, so far as I know, with the balls and the budget to invite Chinese composer Tan Dun to conduct his own opera, Tea: A Mirror of Soul.

I was lucky enough to be gifted a front row seat for the Feb. 21 performance by a very awesome sister. Dun does not so much conduct as conjure from a well within; I couldn’t stop watching him the entire performance. What makes an operatic success? Not the story, but the spectacle; not the characters, but the voices. Tea’s vocal lines are almost at home in Italian opera, although the words are disappointingly English. Haijing Fu’s unwavering baritone grounded the proceedings well, but Dun’s instrumental abandon is what makes the opera glisten and resound.

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Live Review: The Finns Take Philadelphia – Vänskä Conducts Sibelius and Aho’s Minea (2010.03.13)

Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center (home to the Philadelphia Orchestra) puts the Kennedy Center to shame. This 2001 building gives off an intergalactic glass air from the outside. But once you cross the orchestra doors into Verizon Hall, sweeping elliptical balconies in warm wood welcome you and provide an intimate surprise once the orchestra strikes up.

Such a hall was very kind to the East Coast premiere of Kalevi Aho’s Minea. This concertante for orchestra gets its feminine nickname from the commissioning orchestra (Minnesota) where Vänskä conducts. Ever the champion of his fellow Finn, Vänskä gave Aho’s overture a powerful push. He was jumping, bending deep in the knees, twisting from the hips before delivering an openhanded punch or swipe to call up a section to glory.

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Live Review: Brubecks’ Ansel Adams: America – Baltimore Symphony Paints Pictures in Music (2010.12.02)

First off, apologies for being quiet on the classical front. While you may be inclined to trek out to any show at all hours, the majority of the symphony and chamber audience express trepidation on ice. The biggest casualties of the snow: BSO’s Porgy And Bess, and the Candlelight Concert Society’s All-Beethoven program with the Leipzig Quartet, which could have gone down as my “concert of the decade” — had it only happened. (Chin up, readers, the elusive and exemplary Leipzig players may still return in late 2010-2011).

When the BSO struck up the opening of Dave and Chris Brubeck’s Ansel Adams: America concertgoers settled into their seats once again after a forced absence. Composer Chris Brubeck appeared on-stage as a complete surprise. Maestra Marin Alsop invited him to say a few words, “Since you’re alive.” And he told us of hanging clouds and suspended chords (before proceeding to sit down just in front of me). Those clouds came, of course, from Ansel Adams’ photographs.

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Live Review: Parker Quartet Breaks Out the Library of Congress’ Stradivari (2009.12.18)

studio0-900Every year, some lucky players get to borrow Ms. Gertrude Clarke Whittall’s Library present of three violins, a viola, and a cello from the unbeatable maker Antonio Stradivarius for the night. This year, the young New Englanders Parker String Quartet, with their rock-solid lyricism, won the prize. Best of all, the concert is always free.

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Top U.S. Orchestras 2009: Former Baton of L.A. Takes NY Philharmonic for a Spin (2009.12.08)


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MP3: Claude Debussy – La Mer 2. “Jeux des vagues” from Quadromania CD1 – The Complete Orchestral Works, performed by Radio Luxemburg Orchestra under the direction of Louis de Forment

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts with the ease of a man who has world and time enough to sculpt with sound. This is no small triumph for NYC’s Avery Fisher Hall, where much can get swallowed if a conductor is not careful. The acoustics are kind to the Steinway, and dampen the coughing, but diminish a great orchestra. The higher your pitch the better off you are when playing this venue. Still, the programming was fantastic: Bartók, Ravel, Debussy. And this orchestra is one of the oldest in the world, with the most performances under its belt at 14,916.

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Album Reviews: Jody Redhage & Fire in July – Ancient Star | Nadia Sirota – First Things First (New Amsterdam)


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  1. MP3: Jody Redhage & Fire in July – This November
  2. MP3: Jody Redhage & Fire in July – The Botticellian Trees

Ancient Star is the debut album for cellist, composer and vocalist Jody Redhage and her chock full of brass and percussion ensemble: Fire in July. If you’d like to try before you buy, Fire in July plays An Die Musik on Thursday, November 19 at 8pm (more info and tickets). In the meantime, here’s my take on this jazz-fueled riot of mod poet motets:

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