January 27, as you are inescapably aware, was the Big Day for the Mozart year. But after hearing two concerts by John Eliot Gardiner, a knockout Così and a handful of good-to-great new Mozart CDs this week, I didn't feel especially compelled to hear more. I wasn't the only one, but while Alex Ross's abstention was prompted by a noble aim, and Vilaine Fille celebrated Verdi instead, I simply needed to pace my second-most intense work day of the week with an appropriate soundtrack. I selected a fresh stack of mostly recent metallic objects, easing off the pedal at day's end with a fine, vintage Dead show; the details are in the playlist below, if anyone's interested. (My heathen roots are definitely showing.)
This weekend is a curious reprise of last: Saturday consumed by more writing-for-hire, with live music resuming on Sunday afternoon -- this time with a Met Orchestra orgy of Bartók (Miraculous Mandarin Suite), Schoenberg (Erwartung, with Anja Silja) and Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring). That evening, I'll be at Tonic for my first taste of the new-look Ethel with violinist Cornelius Dufallo; they'll be rocking a stack of John King scores, with the composer minding the gaps on laptop. Monday night brings a return to Julie Taymor's Magic Flute, which one of my most esteemed TONY colleagues saw this week and deemed a hopeless muddle; I'm wondering how I'll feel about it now that the novelty has worn off. Tuesday, Frederica von Stade and Joyce DiDonato sing selections from Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking way downtown at Trinity Church, with the composer at the piano and Owen Burdick leading the excellent Trinity Choir; Sister Helen Prejean herself will be on hand to provide commentary. (Sometimes I think I'm the only writer I know who admires this piece -- and there, I've said so.) On Wednesday I'm hopeful that both Rolando Villazón and I will be at the Met for Rigoletto.
Casting about the blogosphere, allow me to be the latest to welcome St. Botolph's Town, a smart new blog documenting the Boston music scene. I'd been feeling a wee bit remorseful about the tone of my Pinchas Zukerman-prompted rant of a few days ago (and even went back to tone down one bit I deemed disrespectful), but yesterday's entry on SBT provided some valuable perspective on the situation in Ottawa.
Another welcome essay was pianist Ethan Iverson's paean to The Art Ensemble 1967/68, a truly magnificent box set of early recordings by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, issued in 1993 by Chuck Nessa on the noble homegrown label that bears his surname. Ethan does a terrific job not only of describing the music contained in this invaluable 5-CD set (with a handful of MP3s to demonstrate), but also of setting it within the context of what was going on in the jazz world at the time -- which underscores the wild originality and strangeness of the sounds emanating from the windy city while others elsewhere were blowing free or funky. He also notes that his set was marked "number 2413 of a limited edition of 2500," which suggests that if you don't act soon, you'll have no one but yourself to blame. Me, I'm surprised it's lasted this long, given the utter life-affirming vitality of the music contained herein. I remember the urgency with which I compelled my parents to make this my Christmas present back in '93. (Mine is number 59.)
I'm grateful to Ethan not only for tipping me off to this post, but also for kindly providing a link that drew a great many visitors to my essay on the passing of Derek Bailey -- a scribble that meant a lot to me. Many people who might never have stumbled upon it otherwise were drawn here by a link on Do the Math, the lively blog maintained by Ethan and his bandmates in the Bad Plus.
I remember being confused when I first played the recently released fourth CD by the Bad Plus, Suspicious Activity? -- confused, that is, because I was absolutely positive that I knew the stately opening track, "Prehensile Dream," from somewhere. But where? Was it a pre-baroque chorale? Some half-remembered church hymn? Neither, I finally realized: I knew it from one of my very favorite jazz CDs of this young century, Reid Anderson's The Vastness of Space. The borrowing was certainly appropriate, given that Anderson is also bassist for the Bad Plus. (I guess it goes without saying that I remembered the tune more readily than its rather distinctive title...)
I confess that I didn't give the Bad Plus its due when it first appeared, most likely because media shorthand for this massively successful band reduced it to a quirky piano trio that covered Blondie and Nirvana. (My reaction is fairly indefensible given my enthusiasm for Brad Mehldau's takes on Nick Drake and Radiohead.) It was the Anderson CD that finally made me pay some genuine attention. When I did, I was fairly blown away a band that dances across the fault lines between jazz, classical music and pop with enviable ease. You hear a lot about jazz combos carrying on conversations on the bandstand; here was a trio that you had to suspect probably chatted (and maybe even argued) rather a lot offstage.
Listening to Suspicious Activity?, you hear loads of intimations; tonight, certain passages reminded me of Brahms, Monk, Angelo Badalamenti and Devo's "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise." Perhaps none of these actually occured to the participants as they made this music, or maybe they all did. Anyway, it's easily my favorite of the band's records, not least because it's dominated by original compositions by its members. (What's more, you'll barely recognize a once über-popular Vangelis theme, so thoroughly is it messed with). And as much as I loved Anderson's original take on "Prehensile Dream" -- especially the pairing of Andrew d'Angelo's crying alto and Bill McHenry's standoffish tenor -- I think the new version may actually trump it in terms of pious glory. Finally, Tchad Blake continues to dispose with the usual audio vérité approach to recording jazz, instead employing his pop savvy to heighten mood and thicken drama as the music suggests.
Ultimately, the Bad Plus is a band in which three individuals mesh disparate influences and inclinations into a singular voice, one that amalgamates progressive strands from various idioms in such a way that rhapsodic piano, chatty bass and motoric drumming -- and, for that matter, jazz, classical and pop -- can coexist in perfect harmony. It sounds like then-and-now-and-next, all at once.
Krisiun - AssassiNation (Century Media, out 2/21)
Decapitated - The Negation (Earache)
Cathedral - The Garden of Unearthly Delights (Nuclear Blast)
Napalm Death - The Code Is Red...Long Live the Code (Nuclear Blast)
Grateful Dead - Swing Auditorium, San Bernardino, CA, Feb. 26, 1977 (Archive.org stream)
The Bad Plus - Suspicious Activity? (Columbia)
Reid Anderson - The Vastness of Space (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Prince - Lovesexy (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.)