Wayne Shorter’s album Juju was recorded at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on 3 August 1964, 50 years ago today.  The ensemble comprised Shorter on tenor sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Reginald Workman on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.  The album has six original compositions, all by Shorter; the modern remastered version has two alternative takes. The music is sublime.

Musical ignorance

You won’t find this blog doing late-breaking news or commentary.   Web-browsing, I am led to a report of an interview given by Cambridge academic George Steiner to a Spanish newspaper in 2008, in which he is quoted as saying:

“It’s very easy to sit here, in this room, and say ‘racism is horrible’,” he said from his house in Cambridge, where he has been Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College since 1969.

“But ask me the same thing if a Jamaican family moved next door with six children and they play reggae and rock music all day. Or if an estate agent comes to my house and tells me that because a Jamaican family has moved next door the value of my property has fallen through the floor. Ask me then!”

In his essays and books, Steiner is a model of erudition.   But his knowledge of music is quite evidently lamentable.  In my experience, almost nobody likes BOTH reggae and rock music, and certainly no Jamaican I have known.  
Ignorance of reggae seems to be a special attribute of the literati.  VS Naipaul once described its beat as “pseudo-portentous”, a property which I have never been able to hear in the music itself.   I doubt he could either; he just liked the phrase and disliked the music.  And – like Charles Rosen with Mendelssohn – used his sharp verbal skills to seek to justify his prior musical tastes.  In both cases, the attempt fails. 
In response to Steiner’s ignorance, I decided to listen to the Master in a superb chilled-out remix:

  • Dreams of Freedom:  Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub. Remix Production by Bill Laswell, Creative Direction by Chris Blackwell. Brooklyn, NY:  Island Records, 1997.

followed by some of the best industrial noise:

  • Shinjuku Filth.  Darrin Verhagen.  Melbourne: Iridium, 1999.

Recent Listening 5: Hungarian Modern Jazz

A quick mention of various Hungarian jazz CDs that I’ve been listening to this week, some of the music cool and some hot.  I have heard several of these performers live, and hope to do so again: pianist Szabo Daniel (whose hands are shown above), double bassist Olah Zoltan (playing on both the Toth Viktor and the Budapest Jazz Orchestra CDs), and the superb Trio Midnight.
Szabo Daniel [1998]: At the Moment. Hungary:  Magneoton/Germany: Warner Music.
Trio Midnight [1999]:  On Track. Featuring Lee Konitz. Budapest, Hungary: Well CD 2000.
Toth Viktor Trio [2000]: Toth Viktor Trio. Budapest, Hungary.
Budapest Jazz Orchestra [2000]: Budapest Jazz Orchestra. Budapest, Hungary.  Recorded at Aquarium Studio.
Note: Entries in this series here.

Recent listening 4: Caravan

One of life’s pleasures is listening to John Schaefer’s superb radio program on WNYC, New Sounds from New York.  I have just heard his recent program presenting different versions of the jazz standard, Caravan. The song is associated with Duke Ellington, although it was composed by trombonist Juan Tizol (pictured playing a valve trombone), and the words were by Irving Mills.   Some of these versions I knew and like, particularly the ambient versions of trumpeter John Hassell (minutes 7:17 and 43:38 of the album):

  • Jon Hassell:  Fascinoma. Water Lily Acoustics, 1999.

The program also included a superb ska version which I did not know before, by the band Hepcat, here.

  • Hepcat:  Out of Nowhere. Hellcat, 2004.   (Reissue of Moon Ska Records, 1983).

One great version not on the program is an arrangement by Gordon Jenkins. This has an agitated string accompaniment, a walking treble sounding like bees circling the soloist, and was included in Season 1 of Mad Men.  Someone has posted a recording on Youtube here.

  • Mad Men:  Music from the Series, volume 1. Lionsgate, 2008.

A superb live version I once heard by a violin-and-guitar band in Brisbane I have written about here.

Two other great ambient albums are:

  • Bill Laswell and Remix Productions:  Bob Marley Dreams of Freedom. Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub. Island Records, 1997.
  • Ethiopiques, Volume 4.  Ethio Jazz and Musique Instrumental 1969-1974. Buda Musique.  This volume comprises performances and arrangements by Ethiopian jazz keyboardist, Mulatu Astatke, on albums first issued in Ethiopia in 1972 and 1974.

Posts in this series are here.

Postscript (2024-03-12): An exciting live performance of Caravan led by blind pianist Oleg Akkuratov at the 2021 Summer Evenings in Yelabuga Festival in Tatarstan is here. (Hat Tip: AD, who was there.)

Carpenter in Cottonopolis

Being a traveling organ recitalist has its own challenges.  All pipe and most electric organs are unique.  A recitalist needs to practice beforehand on the organ he or she will perform on, to get a feel for the instrument’s capabilities, to know its sounds and colours, and to become familiar with its physical layout.  Thus, deciding what music best fits a particular organ and how best to voice that music on that organ requires the organist to spend some time alone with the organ.  Organs are one of the last remaining examples in modern Western life of the primacy of the local, the particular, the here-and-now,  over the universal and general and eternal (in the analysis of Stephen Toulmin).  It is not surprising that the art of improvisation remains alive in organ recitals, alone among current classical music performance practices.

For this reason, American organist Cameron Carpenter tries his best not to decide recital programs in advance of seeing the organ.  Last night in Manchester, playing on a large cinema-style organ in the Bridgewater Hall (not the Hall Organ), he gave an outstanding performance of the following works (as best I can recall):

  • Bach’s Toccata in F minor (though played in F#)
  • One of his own Three Intermezzi for Cinema Organ
  • Bach’s Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, in C minor, C# minor and D major
  • Schubert’s Erl-King, in Carpenter’s transcription for organ
  • Two Chopin Etudes for piano, in Carpenter’s transcription for organ.
  • Bach’s Prelude and Fugue for Organ in G major (with an inserted cadenza improvisation, cinema-organ style)
  • He ended the concert with two improvisations.
  • The audience then recalled him three times for encores, which including a cinema-organ version of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turk (famous as the usual music for the chase scenes in silent films) and (I think) a Prelude and Fugue by Mendelssohn.

What a wonderful, thought-provoking performance this was!  Before the concert even began, Carpenter spent 20 minutes in the lobby, greeting members of the audience as they arrived, something unknown in classical music (at least since Franz Liszt, who, in addition, chatted to the audience between pieces and even while playing).   Carpenter’s performances then likewise played masterful havoc with the fusty organ recital tradition!   But not arbitrarily – the guy had thought intelligently about the music and knew what he was doing.  For instance, in Bach’s proto-minimalist Prelude in C minor (WTC, Book I), the left-hand part was taken by the feet, and the subtle melody which emerges from the leading notes of the right-hand part was played on a different keyboard (and thus with different tone colours) to the notes from which it emerges.  Pianists often foreground the leading melody notes while pushing the other right-hand notes into the background; Carpenter did not do this, which I think better matches the minimalist tenor of the music – ie, it is the background here that is really the foreground.   His was an intelligent and reflective treatment, and showed an understanding of the ideas in this music.  (In case the mention of Bach and minimalism in the same breath surprises you, I think there is a close connection between Minimalism and Pietism, a relationship which deserves its own post.)
Would old JS have liked this treatment of his music?  Of course, he would have!  The man who imported colorful Italian and French musical styles into the moribund North German church music tradition and wrote a cantata in praise of coffee would surely have loved it.  And one only has to listen to Bach’s Piano Concerto in D minor (BWV 1052), with its humorous flourishes and its repeated notes (more minimalism!), to know that this was a man who liked to play the keyboard.
And Carpenter’s delight and enthusiasm at playing the organ was evident throughout.  Hands stretched across two, three and even four keyboards, or jumping back and forth between them, along with feet playing 4-note chords or impossible contrapuntal parts (such as the opening voice of the D Major Fugue) or imitating the wild horses in the Erl-King, all showed a man enjoying himself immensely.   Even when a technical problem caused one keyboard not to sound, he remained enthusiastic.    The hall was only about half full, and all of us who heard him were lucky to have experienced this superb combination of enthusiasm, black-belt technical mastery, and intelligent musicianship.  Life has been better ever since!
POSTSCRIPT (2010-08-10): Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Carpenter’s organ-playing.  I note that the writer and reviewers quoted in that review are themselves organists (or the children of), and wonder if Carpenter’s messing with tradition is what really upsets these folk.   For some reason I think of Karl Marx’s dictum that tradition comprises the collected errors of past generations.
Cameron Carpenter web-site.  Edition Peters page.
Guardian preview here.  Pre-concert interview with BBC In Tune here (limited time only).

Recent listening 3: Eastern European flavours

Following my post about Czech Tropicala-post-punk duo DVA, I thought I’d write about some other East European-flavoured music which I listen to a lot.
The first is the album Mnemosyne, by Ljova and the Kontraband, which I have mentioned previously for their setting of  poem by Joe Stickney.  Their music is a mix of East-European gypsy, klezmer and jazz, played by virtuoso performers on viola, accordian, bass and percussion (plus guests).   This mix could only happen in New York City, which is where they are based.
A genuine EE gypsy sound is the painful blues of Dona Dumitru Siminica (1926-1979), who sings this gypsy Romanian parallel to Rembetika in a falsetto voice, with accordian, cymbalon and bass and sometimes violin behind him.  The re-issue I am listening to comprises tracks originally recorded in Bucharest in the early 1960s.
The third album brings the accordian into the 21st-century:  arrangements of various fast-moving electronica tracks for a trio of virtuoso Polish accordianistas, Motion Trio. After this album, no one can ever say again that a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordian but refrains from doing so!
Play Station
Ljova and the Kontraband [2008]:  Mnemosyne.  Kapustnik Records, New York City.
Dona Dumitru Siminica [2006]:  Sounds from a Bygone Age, Volume 3. Asphalt Tango Records GmbH, Berlin.  CD-ATR 1106.
Motion Trio [2005]: Play-Station. Asphalt Tango Records GmbH, Berlin. CD-ATR 0705.

Recent listening 2: Johann Vanhal

Because Joseph Haydn died in 1809, there have been many celebrations of his music this year.  Even Cottonopolis held a mini-fest of his symphonies earlier in the summer.   For a very long time, I did not enjoy Haydn’s symphonies, hearing them as light-weight, shallow and frivolous.  The musical jokes were mildly amusing the first time you hear them, but are not amusing after repeated exposure.  Rather, in marked contrast to his sacred music, Haydn’s symphonic music struck me most forcefully as twee. Perhaps there was something in the social circumstances of their commissioning or their performance that precluded the intense and the profound being expressed in his symphonies.  El Papa’s symphonies have a flippancy one can also hear in lots of Mozart (excepting inter alia his last four Symphonies), in Beethoven (when he’s not being self-consciously serious), and stretching, in what seems to me became a peculiarly-Viennese tradition, all the way to the waltzing Strauss family and even to Mahler.  With the Strausses, it is all foam, all the time.   This Viennese flippancy virus even infected composers far away, such as Mahler’s great admirer, Shostakovich, whose Concerto for Piano and Trumpet (for example) is one long musical joke.   Perhaps only in a city surrounding an imperial court could music so frivolous, so lacking in gravitas, be desired, written or admired.
However, by chance a few years ago, I heard one of Haydn’s so-called Sturm-und-Drang (Storm and Stress) Symphonies.  Here at last was the serious Hadyn I knew from the oratorios and the chamber music, writing music which expressed deeply-felt emotions, and which evoked them, and did both intensely.    These symphonies from his middle period, written between 1768 and 1772 when he was in his late 30s, and usually counted as numbers 44-49, are more powerful and intense than his other symphonies, in my opinion.  In comparison to the music of the practical jokester, they are strange and difficult.  They were clearly written by someone experiencing some emotional torment, and they make for uncomfortable listening.

Recently, I heard a radio broadcast of a symphony which at first I thought was another Haydn sturm-und-drang work, but which I did not know. It turned out to be a work by one of Haydn’s contemporaries, Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813), a Czech composer who lived mostly in Vienna from 1760.   I have since listened to all his works I can find recorded.   Here is music to be reckoned with – deeply intense, emotional, profound, technically sophisticated, and much better than Haydn’s best symphonies.   Technically, Vanhal strikes me as more adept than Haydn, innovative in his choice of instrumentation, and approaching the level of Beethoven in his manipulation and development of musical ideas to achieve profound and moving effects.   The thrilling opening of Symphony bryan c2 (the second in c minor in the numbering system of Paul Bryan) is surely one of the most exciting of the whole 18th century, sending the hairs on my neck straight up.   And the theme is then developed to a place of intense sadness and feeling.  The final movement of this symphony is also quite thrilling, with fast, high string figures repeated while the harmonies beneath them move.    Similarly, Vanhal uses a moving bass line to add a profound edge to a somewhat frivolous melody line in the third movement (Allegro) of Symphony bryan D4 (the fourth in D major).    The fourth movement of Symphony bryan d1 is also intense and thrilling.
In the 4th movement of Symphony bryan g2, Vanhal uses a development idea which is often found in Bach – a figure is played three times, descending a tone each time, over six elements of a circle-of-fifths harmonic progression (eg,  E – A, D – G, C – F).   (To be fair, Haydn also uses similar gadgets – for example, the thrilling circle-of-fourths progression in the development section of the first movement of his Symphony #48 in C, Maria Theresa.)  Supposedly one of the pleasures we gain from listening to music comes from anticipation – our brains are continually predicting what will come next, and when it does we gain enjoyment – and hearing this figure always provides me with great pleasure.    In the intensity of his music and in the development sections, we hear also a prefigurement of Gossec and Beethoven and later symphonic composers.
Why do we not hear more of  Vanhal’s music?  Why are all his symphonies not yet recorded?  Especially in this year of Hadynolatry we should be hearing the music of his contempories and those who influenced him – Vanhal, von Dittersdorf, Michael Haydn – or vice versa, especially when they wrote better music and music which clearly influenced later composers.   If the BBC took seriously its mission to educate as well as to entertain, we could perhaps expect better.  Instead, we get to hear once again Haydn’s musical jokes, as if these were new to us, or funny.
Josef Haydn:  “Sturm und Drang” Symphonies, nos. 44-49.  Symphony Orchestra of Radio Zagreb, Antonio Ianigro (conductor).  Artemis Classics, 2004.
Johann Vanhal: Symphonies.  London Mozart Players, Matthias Bamert (conductor). Chandos Records, 1998.  Contains Symphonies Bryan g2, D4 and c2.
Johann Vanhal: Symphonies. Concerto Koln (no conductor listed).  Elatus, 1996.  Contains Symphonies Bryan d1, g1, C11, a2 and e1.
Johann Vanhal: Symphonies Volume 1. Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, Uwe Grodd (conductor). Naxos, 1999. Contains Symphonies Bryan A9, C3, D17, and C11.
Johann Vanhal: Symphonies Volume 2. City of London Sinfonia, Andrew Watkinson (conductor). Naxos, 2000. Contains Symphonies Bryan Bb3, d2, and G11.
Johann Vanhal: Symphonies Volume 3. Toronto Camerata, Kevin Mallon (conductor). Naxos, 2005. Contains Symphonies Bryan D2, Ab1, c2, and G6.
Johann Vanhal: Symphonies Volume 4. Toronto Chamber Orchestra, Kevin Mallon (conductor). Naxos, 2008. Contains Symphonies Bryan e3, C17, C1, and Eb1.

Recent listening 1: DVA / Fonok

I’ve been listening lately to an album Fonok by a Czech duo, DVA, comprising husband and wife: Jan Kratochvil and Barbora Kratochvilova.  They describe their music as the folklore of non-existent nations, and it is  a wonderful combination of electronics, acoustic instruments, nitrous-oxide-inflected voices, Slavic language chants (I think the language is Czech, but I am not certain), ostinato rhythms, and jazz sensibilities.   The sax licks could be by James Chance, and the overall sound places this folklore firmly in that no wave, nao wave, post-punk nation of 1980s downtown Sao Paulo.

DVA [2008]:  FonokIndies Scope.
DVA website is here and myspace page here.