Category Archives: Now Hear This!

Music you should hear at least once…

Percussion Play: Ionisation

Varèse’s Ionisation.

Pierre Boulez conducting the Ensemble InterContemporain.

Playing around with different kinds of pitch (fixed, variable or indefinite) and rhythm, Ionisation was the first piece written for percussion ensemble alone. Nicholas Slonimsky, who conducted the premiere in 1933, talks about the composer in an archived recorded interview here from 1973. He describes Varèse as ”a huge, French desert.”

It definitely gets funky at around the 2-minute mark.

Neglected Masterpieces: Manu Katche’s ‘Neighbourhood’

Very few albums, in my opinion, match Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’ legendary 1959 recording. But I think I have finally found one.

Album coverDrummer-turned-leader Manu Katché’s Neighbourhood displays a quite awe-inspiring line-up of jazz legends (a factor so significant that the album cover is simply a list of players on the recording, which shows you the stature afforded the musicians); trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, with pianist Marcin Wasilewski and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz from Stanko’s own quartet, not to mention Katché himself.

Katché is a masterful and versatile dummer, having played alongside pop icons Peter Gabriel and Sting as well as being a colossus amonst jazz drummers – previous credits include Garbarek’s I Took Up The Runes, also for ECM. Neighbourhood is his debut recording as leader for the label, and has something of the timeless quality that made Kind of Blue so special: delicate, sparse textures that allow the music room to breathe, colourful harmonies that are leisurely in their exploration of the potential of modality and the twelve-bar blues.  The indebtedness to Davis’s album is perhaps most obvious on Miles Away which employs a similar bass-line and 6/8 rhythmic feel to All Blues.

Here’s a video for ‘Number One’ from the album:

There’s a simplicity about the music on the album that speaks of great profundity; as the leader and the drummer, Katché is completely alive to every nuance offered by Wasilewski’s delicate artistry, Garbarek’s plangent melodic lines and Stanko’s lyricism. There’s a relaxed funkiness to ‘Take Off And Land’ that still manages to generate a compelling rhythmic drive. 

Not many albums can stand next to Kind of Blue: but this one, perhaps, just might.

Neglected masterpieces: John Surman’s Stranger than Fiction

Just occasionally, a jazz album comes along that stands outside of its time, and becomes a classic. Miles Davis’ 1959 recording, Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus’ Ah Um, John Coltrane’s Blue Train; the list goes on. More often, perhaps, albums are released that as equally as timeless, yet somehow fail to attract the acclaim and the status that they might deserve.

Album artStranger than Fiction, by British saxophonist John Surman, is a wonderfully lyrical and expressive album on which the pieces display the trademark organic, melodic improvisational skills of Surman, matched by some beautiful exploratory playing from pianist John Taylor, whose careful attention to balance and texture recalls some of Morton Feldman’s piano pieces. There’s some understated support from bassist Chris Laurence, and delicate drumming from John Marshall.

The wonderful climbing line that opens ‘Tess,’ or the asymmetrical shifting patterns of the accompaniment which opens ‘Moonshine Dancer’ show the evocative colours that the group can weave; the mood is contemplative, almost spiritual, and the album never puts a foot wrong. No gesture is wasted, no phrase surplus to requirements: deft yet sure, the players are working together seamlessly yet creating plenty of space for one another.

Here’s ‘Moonshine Dancer;’

Released in 2007 on the ECM label, home of such artists as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Marcin Wasilewski and other greats, the album is presented in the hallmark ECM style, monochromatic colours with no textural clutter and expressionist cover photography.

Inventive, expressive, and timeless. Listen for yourself to extracts from the album on Amazon here: you won’t be disappointed.

Exuberance in music: Joe Zawinul’s ‘Patriots’

For sheer unbridled exuberance in music and matchless energy, here’s the late, great Joe Zawinul’s ‘Zawinul Syndicate’ performing Patriots live in 1997.

After an all too brief but dizzying bass solo from the great Richard Bona, the unstoppable rhythmic drive of the piece kicks in: it’s hard not to be carried away by its infectious joie de vivre and sheer pleasure in playing. Once the groove has begun, propelled by some astonishing percussion work, it never lets up: the piece just cooks nicely and with such ease, you can forget that it’s leading at such a frenetic pace.

Zawinul led the great fusion band Weather Report in the 1970s and 80s, a legendary ensemble including ex-Miles Davis sideman, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Jaco Pastorius (listen to Teen Town to get an idea of Jaco’s astonishing virtuosity and raising of the bass to a melodic instrument; Bach would have loved it), and drummer Peter Erskine. The group’s dazzling blending of jazz, rock and world music saw the creation of great albums such as Black Market, Heavy Weather, 8.30 and Sportin’ Life.

 Zawinul himself played with Miles Davis for a brief period, and wrote the lyrical In A Silent Way from Davis’ album of the same name, and also played on Davis’ Bitches Brew, the fastest-selling jazz album of all time.

Zawinul’s own Zawinul Syndicate saw the same driving and energetic performances typified in Patriots right up until Zawinul’s death in September, 2007.

That’s the secret to music-making, and to great performances: passion, commitment and joy in performing.

(And to the members of the University Chamber Choir 2008-09, for whom I wrote a choral arrangement of Patriots: remember this ?! Happy days.)

Freaked out by Bowie

I’m going through a David Bowie phase in my car at the moment – in-car listening is a terrific way of exploring music – and am working through Changes, Black Tie, White Noise and Reality,

All was going well until three tracks into Black Tie,White Noise when Bowie started singing his cover version of Cream’s I Feel Free. I’ve not heard it before – and it was terrifying.

A 60’s super-group comprising guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, Cream’s original version of I Feel Free has a manic, slightly trippy euphoria about it, a recklessly exuberant feel.

Bowie’s, however, has none of that: instead, there’s a brooding menace about his version: he sings in a very low register, the rhythmic feel is halved, such that it is much slower, there’s none of the jolly hand-clapping of the Cream original. All in all, it adds up to a very creepy rendition: I think it works, but I’m still not wholly sure, being slightly freaked out at hearing a song I’ve loved for years delivered in such a brooding and ominous fashion (once you get past the opening twenty seconds, that is…).

Combined with a slightly deranged guitar improvised chorus, it’s quite disturbing: shades of Buffalo Bill or the Jigsaw Man’s soundtrack inside their head as they stalk the pavements for their next victim.

Compare them for yourself, and let me know what you think. If you dare…

Turkish Delight: Satie vs Mozart

1913 was a year of destruction: it saw the beginning of the First World War, and the première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which smashed the homogeny of the orchestra, as well as principles of rhythm and harmony.

Erik Satie
The Master of Arcueil: Erik Satie

But it also witnessed annihilation on a smaller scale: Erik Satie, the master of Arcueil, took on Mozart and destroyed him. Satie turned his satiricial eye on Mozart’s famous Rondo alla turca in his set of three piano pieces forming the Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois.

Satie’s exaggerated parody in the first of these, his Tyroliene Turque, skewers Mozart harmonically, rhythmically, and structurally.

Satie has introduced strange dissonances into Mozart’s harmonies, and altered the time-signature from Mozart’s original 2/4 to a rhythmic feel of three beats in a bar (although, by this stage, Satie had long abandoned anything so traditional as time-signatures and bar-lines, so the score has neither). The right-hand octaves in Mozart’s piece have been split by Satie, such that the melody is distended further by having each note repeated an octave higher.

And then: the music returns to the opening ostinato, which seems to be in G major, but with a prominent flattened seventh on the third beat of each repetition suggesting that the music may move to C major – which, being Satie, of course it does not. These repeating, endless patterns, implying harmonic motion on the one hand whilst denying it on the other, are typical of Satie: ” listen, I’m going to modulate: oh, wait, no I’m not!”

That’s the great thing about Satie: his music is murderous in a brilliantly concise fashion. Don’t underestimate him: there’s always more to Satie than meets the ear.

Varese for eight hands

WXQR, New York’s classical radio station, is currently streaming a concert performance of Varèse’s remarkable Amériques  for eight hands on two pianos.

All keyed up

Originally scored for large orchestra, including an eleven-player percussion section which uses sirens, it’s a vibrant and often alarming tone-poem depcting the city of New York itself.

Hearing it in Varèse’s own two-piano transcription, which was not discovered until recently, offers a remarkable perspective on an already notorious work.

Hear it for yourself.

Another Adams: composer John Luther Adams.

It’s always exciting to discover a new composer whose musical language instantly appeals to you.

I can still recall the exact moment when I first heard a piece by Steve Reich: Vermount Counterpoint. I was immediately hooked.  A pal at school had made a compilation tape of pieces for me, including Eight Lines, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, Six Pianos, and a piece by another Minimalist, John Adams, Grand Pianola Music. Now my listening library is dominated by these two composers.

John Luther AdamsI’ve recently discovered another Adams: John Luther Adams, whose hypnotic music occupies a similar niche. The beautiful soundscape of In a Treeless Place, Only Snow  is a delicate gem.

Listen to it for yourself: In a Treeless Place, Only Snow.

And if you like that, try this: The Farthest Place.

Both performances by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, with other pieces streamed from WXQR, the classical radio station in New York’s website here as well.

(And continuing the leap into the Digital Age: you’re now using a media player on this blog as well. Blogs, virtual magazines, video-clips, floating media player: the modernisation continues!)

So, what music struck you like a thunderbolt early on and has stayed with you ever since ?