Tuesday, April 5, 2011

CD Reviews: Dana Reason, Steve Barsotti, David Loy

These are some CDs that I’ve picked up at concerts lately (actually last year) or in a studio. Two are experimental, and two are jazz piano – though with two drastically different takes on the latter.

Dana Reason Trio: Revealed

Think of this as one large composition in a virtuosic “lots of notes” free-jazz style. It begins with a showy allegro with chaos and clusters of notes (reminiscent of some of the work in Chick Corea’s “Early Days”). More pieces in a similar vein follow, though the listener may be able to discern a gradual “opening up” of the harmonies: chords with more fourths and fifths in them, and less minor (or dissonant) intervals. Then, halfway through, something entirely unexpected happens. A grand hush comes over the music. Silence (never actually heard, always felt) becomes the focus. At the same time, the piano playing at least becomes more intense, more concentrated. In this way, this album (this single large composition) becomes like those rare large-scale classical works where the climax is in the quietest music, after all the din and drama has subsided (think of the Mahler 3rd, the Berlioz Requiem, or the Monteverdi “1610” Vespers). The end becomes slightly more active, with the bass leading the way in a long improvisation over sparse sounds from the other instruments. Altogether an interesting and refreshing approach for a jazz album.

David Loy: Cranes

David sold me this CD while I was at his Lake Union Studio, recording some tracks for a CD of my piece “SoundScrolls V” (one of my tracks is available for free online; here.) David recorded this CD in the studio, on their amazing grand piano, and he worked out much of this music to sound optimal on this particular piano. This is not the kind of piano music that I usually listen to – but in this case I make an exception. At first hearing, this is “George Winston” easy listening – but not in a bad, muzaky way. The long reverberations were not added in post-production to smooth out the piano sound – they were produced by the piano itself and are an intrinsic part of the music. Likewise, the piano was not compressed so that all notes are the same volume level – here, loud notes sound loud not only because they have a sharper “attack”, but because they actually are louder – the way a piano sounds in real life and the way it is recorded in classical music and jazz. These techniques make nuances possible which never occur in “easy listening” piano. Fans of Windham Hill should give this a listen to hear what they’ve been missing.

That said, what about the music? Here, even casual listening reveals another surprise: unusual for this genre, David is not afraid of jazz chords, chromaticism, and even dissonance (the piece “For My Father” actually has an atonal melody; “Oropesa” frequently harmonizes the melody against a minor second). These do not detract from the “style” of the music but are subtly worked into it. The result? I stated above that at first hearing, this is “George Winston” easy listening – but after a second or third hearing, those impressions fade. In the end, this is actually a solo piano jazz CD. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in something that, on close inspection, turns out to be something else entirely.

Steve Barsotti: along these lines

This is a beautiful album of (arguably) “old-school” musique-concrete (think the old Xenakis “Electroacoustic Music”) but with an alluring combination of high- and low-tech recording that wouldn’t have been possible in the older music. Like the Dana Reason CD, it can be thought of as a single large-scale composition, though obviously in a much different style. In this case, the four movements form a giant crescendo. The first piece (movement), “Boundaries”, is an excersize in boundary-breaking; the distinction between sounds (and between recognizable and unrecognizable sounds) blurs, and we’re left with vague, almost subliminal soundscape of electro-acoustic “microsounds”. All is quiet, with hints of mechanical noises and “electronica”, but the sources of very little can be discerned; it appears that many of the frequencies (those that make the sounds recognizable) have been filtered out.

The second and third pieces (movements), called “Bridges” and “Terraces”, bring in more high frequencies, and thus the sounds are more familiar. Some of the sounds are periodic, thus setting up rudimentary meters (“Bridges” actually begins with traffic driving over an expansion seam in a bridge), though the emphasis is still on the interest of the sound itself. Both also establish drones based on electronic processing of the same sounds, thus also establishing “tonality”. “Terraces” is the longest piece, and here the electronic drones become the most ambient, blending with the other sounds in an epic slow movement.

If “Terraces” is the adagio, then “Bypass” is the finale. Strange blips give way to massive static and “heavy metal” distortion. This could be a piece by Merzbow, though, as Mr. Barsotti explained to me, “It’s not just that you turn it on and let it scream at you.” As in Merzbow’s “1930” album, there is subtlety behind the noise. Delicate bells quiver behind walls of static; quiet overtones sing out amid thunderous din. The final 30 seconds fulfill what had begun 60 minutes before; the same sounds that started “Boundaries” return, and the listener suddenly realizes that these are the same sound sources that produced the chaos of “Bypass”. The CD ends refreshed, despite the intensity of its final minutes.

Steve Barsotti: Rarebit

Mr. Barsotti’s other CD, “Rarebit”, is a collection of pieces made on homemade instruments. None of these (either the pieces or the instruments) are “musical” in the conventional sense; rather, they are excursions into the possible beauty that untuned percussive sound can (perhaps unexpectedly) produce. It is not possible to determine which instrument plays which sound, nor is this necessary. There is a continuous contrast between pointilistic and drone-like sounds, and between sounds that appear “near” and those that have echoes and appear “far”: the constant shifting between these creates a tension in the music. The most surprising manifestation of this tension, however, occurs in the form of the “playlist” itself: the first and last pieces are made by multitracking material from other pieces on the CD. One would expect these to be denser (and thus the pieces in the middle, which were played “live”, to sound shallow) – but oddly, this does not happen. The first dense piece merely presents the material in an unfocussed, unclear haze; an overture of sounds that will be explored more completely in later pieces. The last dense piece is the finale, summing up all that has gone before in an aleatory overlapping. Like “Along these Lines”, this CD ends refreshed and completed, without any dangling ideas. I recommend both of them.

(This posting is on 4/5/2011; 46 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

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