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What a privilege to hear Anthony Davis play two sets of solo piano at the Western Front last night. His performance—a return to Vancouver after thirty years—also marked the release of past – piano – present, an LP anthology of audio recordings from the Western Front’s archive featuring tracks by Anthony Davis, Paul Plimley, Al Neil and John Kameel Farah.
In her sleeve notes, pianist Dana Reason notes how, in his 1985 performance of “Behind the Rock,” Davis’s “ease mobilizing and maximizing the piano . . . suggests a careful study of Duke Ellington’s rich orchestral tradition.” Not that Davis’s playing sounds studied or academic; his aesthetic – his performance style and his method – seems to offer an idiosyncratic mix of (what George Lewis has called) Eurological and Afrological sensibilities, blurring composition and improvisation, chamber music and blues, Olivier Messiaen and James P. Johnson, recital and gig, to generate a vital, kinetic music of layered possibilities. He played two sets lasting almost an hour each. The first set opened with a piece built from variations on cascading intervals, which Davis later identified as fragments from his composition Wayang No. IV. The second piece, which Davis did not identify, spun magisterially through components of what felt like a 32-bar song, unpacking and reassembling melody with a recognizably Ellingtonian grandeur. The third piece was a version of “Ankle and Wrist” from his 1997 opera Amistad; built on shards of a blues motif, the music surged in swathes gathered and propelled by Davis’s powerful sustain pedal, while his strong left hand offered up lines recalling Sir Roland Hannaor Earl Hines. Davis’s touch is fierce and firm, but he also has a keen capacity for tenderness, as the concluding piece of the first set, a gently deconstructed jazz waltz, suggested.
The second set opened with what he called his “Goddess Variations,” improvisations developed around the “orchestral material” from the aria “They come as if from the heavens (Goddess of the Waters),” also from Amistad. He followed with an extended wordless version of “Five Moods from an English Garden,” a work he described composing when he found himself stranded in Munich – after touring with violinist Leroy Jenkins – sleeping on a studio floor; on a snowy May morning, he said, he walked through the city’s English Gardens – listening to birdcalls – and into an exhibit of Wassily Kandinsky paintings – “moods” – at a gallery there. The composition draws onthese two palettes to create a vivid tone poem. The closing piece from the second set involved a return to Wayang No. IV, extending Davis’s exploration of the material in intense overlaid chords to produce what felt like kinetic densities, a powerfully mobile aural weave. As an encore for an enthusiastic, deeply engaged audience, Davis played a remarkable meditative version of “Monk’s Mood,” a suitably elegant and resonant conclusion to a brilliant concert.
|Aram Bajakian, Francois Houle, Samuel Blaser, Torsten Mueller|
|Francois Houle, Samuel Blaser (The camera seems to have auto-focused
on the back of pianist Benoit Delbecq’s head — who was sitting in front of me.)
The two-horn line can seem spare and linear, but both Blaser and Houle have a fullness of tone and a sensitivity to space, as well as a willingness to let melody and line resonate and open out into the room. The music builds on close, intimate, mutual listening, mixing counterpoint with thickly vertical harmonizing; playing two clarinets at once, Houle instantaneously concocts Pythagorean-sounding harmonies that make me think of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata and Kirk’s performances with trombonists Dick Griffin and Steve Turre. I don’t mean, by mentioning all of these other players, to suggest that this music is derivative: Blaser and Houle produce music of striking originality and boldness. But I also hear a deep sense of history and of performative inheritance that locates their work alongside that of some of the greatest and most challenging improvisers of this past century.
|Aram Bajakian, Samuel Blaser, Torsten Mueller|
|Aram Bajakian (Torsten Mueller in the corner)|
And here is a duo version Taylor Ho Bynum recorded with Anthony Braxton in 2002 at Wesleyan:
A version of Houle’s composition “Seventy-Three” followed, a tune originally recorded on his album In the Vernacular (Songlines, 1998), which is dedicated to the music of John Carter. Carter, Houle said afterward, would have been seventy-three at the time of the recording. Much of the music, besides its in-the-moment spontaneity, was vitally self-aware of its own historicity, its sense of a present deeply enmeshed in lineages and antecedents, but dynamically and restlessly so. Houle also mentioned Carter’s duets with Bobby Bradford: forebears who continue to open up new and challenging possibilities for this music, as part of a living tradition of experimentation and forward motion. The duo played “Shift” from Taylor’s suite Apparent Distance, and then closed with a blistering and challenging reading of Anthony Braxton’s Composition 69c, a sinuous monody combining bluesy flatted fifths with angular sonic geometries. (At the set break that followed, a little out of breath and a bit unsatisfied with his performance, Taylor recalled speaking with Kenny Wheeler about how difficult and even lip-splitting playing Braxton’s compositions in the quartet could be.) For the second set, the duo returned with versions of two Carter pieces (played originally with Bobby Bradford): “Comin’ On” and “Sticks and Stones.”
The concert closed with an extended trio; Houle invited tenor saxophonist Nils Berg to come up, and they offered a ten-or-more minute extemporaneous tone poem, with Berg’s contributions recalling the restrained lyricism of late Lester Young, or perhaps even Warne Marsh in a reflective mood. Beautiful things: bright moments, as Rahsaan might have put it. Here is Taylor’s field recording of the trio, so you can hear it for yourself.
|Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara (obscured behind people and a post)|