Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tom Waits – Big Time

   When in 1988 Island Records released Big Time, the 12th official album of Tom Waits, many have guessed it was about the end of the entire era. It had been issued in parallel with the film of the same title, and in the matter of fact as a kind of soundtrack for the movie. Tom Waits who was hardened in mid 70’s while being both late beatnik and avant-garde bard, a decade later became famous as author of songs, composer, singer, actor and creator of project that made him the guru of an alternative music. Some were convinced that after Tom Waits married Kathleen Brennan, his direction has changed. Maybe she was the one, who opened him for Captain Beefheart’s music and ideas, but in this decade Waits’ creative activity was equally high as before and development was even more rapid. He was heading almost the same direction as Beefheart few years before, but even if he has changed, this was more like following the changing times. And the times were really changing.
   The general tendency was visible yet in some of Tom Waits’ songs from last Asylum years. The title song of his last Asylum album Heartattack and Wine (1980) shows he was moving towards folk and blues aiming the same ideas Captain Beefheart did before. But Waits did it on his own way – where Beefheart was rough and individualized, Waits was nostalgic and socialized. This was the main difference between Beefheart and Waits – folk blues expression versus moving folk lyricism and catchy country tunes. In early 80’s he started his association with Island Records, beginning the period of his great albums – by many recognized as his best works – Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985) and Frank’s Wild Years (1987). The last accord of this series was Big Time, live album with songs mostly known from earlier studio recordings, but in live versions performed during 1987 tour.

Tom Waits – Big Time (1988)

   The album Big Time is much more than just an alternative version of the movie, it is rather complementary vision of these songs in better audio quality and with audience interaction. Both are perfect closings for the narrative continuity of prior records and kind of climax ending the chapter of artist biography – this chapter included also acting in best movie productions and participation in recording sessions with different artists. In 70’s he was underground individual, in 80’s he became alternative celebrity and one of most recognized artists. Recorded in November 1987 and released in September next year, Big Time was great artistic success. Recordings came from gigs in Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. Both, film and record gave the most accurate picture of Waits’ live performances, including acting and talking to the public in the movie and all songs in perfectly fitting edition. The song Falling Down is unpublished studio recording. It’s a kind of bridge between Way Down in the Hole and written for Marianne Faithful Strange Weather  a magic moment in the movie and the end of A Side.

Tom Waits – Big Time – Strange Weather (1988)

   But what was the real value of these productions, these are kind of recapitulations of Waits’ creative achievements. One can find here biting wit and pure nonsensical skits as well as rational insights and touching ballads. Different instrumental settings bringing sound stylized on a cheap cabaret band with great power of expression. The band saxophonist Ralph Carney is playing various horns including tenor and alto saxophones played simultaneously on stage. Jazz musicians guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Greg Cohen playing also alto sax are well known for their rich artistic activities. The group includes Willy Schwarz playing accordion, organ, sitar and conga and the drummer Michael Blair who was also a parto of staff recording Rain Dogs album. Including so powerful personalities instrumental lineup of Waits’ band is sometimes neglected. Many critics just don’t remember how strong the impact of this band was in times of plastic electronic instruments. This presentation really showed there are no different Waitses and different periods are only mind constructions for better understanding the process of artistic development. Strong and bright four stars.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bernstein – Berlioz – Harold in Italy

   Hector Berlioz, great romantic composer and innovator in orchestration, one of best French artists ever, was prized mostly for his Symphonie fantastique, or still very popular in 19th century and one of his most recognized work program symphony Harold in Italy. In most of his works he was breaking the fixed rules of music constructions. The most famous works on his account, like La damnation de Faust which Berlioz described as “légende dramatique” and Roméo et Juliette called by composer “symphonie dramatique”.
   After great artistic success of Symphonie fantastique, Hector Berlioz was credited as main personality of French romanticism and highly priced for musical language and form innovations. He was declared as an atheist, he composed also Te Deum in 1849, a quasi-liturgical work. His most famous religious work is Grande messe des morts op. 5 known also as the Requiem, a monumental composition written in 1837 by the commission of French Minister of Interior to commemorate soldiers who died during Revolution of July 1830.
   Although Berlioz second symphony is precisely defined in its title – Harold en Italie, Symphonie en quatre parties avec un alto principal op. 16 – it is not well fitting to any known form. This is more the symphony set of orchestral scenes corresponding with moods presented in Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with melancholic parts of viola corresponding to the title hero dreamy character. The first idea to write a composition with extensive viola parts came from Nicolo Paganini. In December 1933, after performance of Symphonie fantastique great violinist commissioned work for solo viola he could play with extraordinary viola by Antonio Stradivari he possessed. But after great virtuoso seen first sketches of Berlioz new composition, he was disappointed and refused.

Leonard Bernstein – Berlioz – Harold in Italy (1977)

   It is worth to remember Harold in Italy is not titled sinfonia concertante, viola is very well displayed but not in concerting manner. From formal point of view it is freely constructed program symphony with viola representing the hero of Byron’s poem. In some ideas this work can be seen as a predecessor of symphonic poem, the romantic form established by Liszt almost two decades later and this is real value of this symphony. Nicolo Paganini heard the Harold in Italy symphony four years after premiere in 1938 and in front of audience he knelt before composer kissing his hand. Few days later Berlioz received congratulations and bank draft for 20 000 francs as a personal award for commissioned work.
   In 1977 EMI Records released recording of Harold in Italy interpreted by Leonard Bernstein with Orchestre National de France and violist Donald McInnes. Published in quadraphonic pressing, this performance gives the audiophile satisfaction of clear and deep sound. String phrases are strongly outlined and the whole orchestral sound is rich and filled with colors. Soloist plays viola with full, silky sound. He is observant and precise, giving the viola part nostalgic, sometimes melancholic temper. Formal frame of the program symphony, narrative continuity and permanent exploration of possible, sometimes even surprising new readings with full orchestral expression are features marking this recording so significant, deserving five in a five-star scale.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Gulda / Corea / Harnoncourt – Mozart Piano Concertos

   Friedrich Gulda as a pianist has had powerful and all-embracing artistic possibilities. He was inspired interpreter of great piano cycles both with orchestra and for piano solo. As successful performer of classical piano repertoire and jazz, he was playing concertos with symphony orchestra, jazz bands and artists of world music. On the ground of classical piano music he was recognized as great interpreter of 18th and early 19th century works, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Ludwig van Beethoven. He was also befriending with Chick Corea, one of best jazz pianists and composers who has also classical piano competences. They gave performances together and made some records. These projects became instantly famous as an example of crossover, although for most musicians it is obvious, there is no crossover if music is treated as an art.
   This was always strong tendency to connect jazz with concert music or to consider it later as a part of artistic music. From Gershwin writing Blue Rhapsody and Igor Stravinsky composing for Benny Goodman, who also recorded Mozart Clarinet Concerto, through music of the third stream, Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, to Jacques Loussier, Modern Jazz Quartet and many others playing music of Bach, jazz was always part of modern professional music and professional musicians often reached out for jazz to find the missing part of musical activity. In last decades of 20th century many jazz musicians were performing Mozart’s works. His classical style was perfect for practicing regular forms so it was quite a considerable part of professional training and every musician had some experiences with it. But still it was the sensational event when Friedrich Gulda had invited Chick Corea to give joint performance of Mozart’s Double Piano Concerto.

Gulda / Corea / Harnoncourt are playing Mozart (1983)

   Recorded in Amsterdam Concertgebouw for Teldec label this album includes the perfect example of the jazz musician performing classical repertoire in Concerto for Two Pianos and the Coronation Concerto played by Friedrich Gulda. It was set in 1983, more than decade before the groundbreaking recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos made by Chick Corea with Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Bobby McFerrin in 1996 and by Keith Jarrett with Stuttgarter Kammerorchester and Dennis Russell Davies in 1999. In the moment it was astonishing idea to connect Friedrich Gulda and Chick Corea in one Mozart’s Double Concerto. And this duo of piano virtuosi was accompanied by one of best orchestras ever, the Concertgebouw Orchester Amsterdam conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who at the time was known almost exclusively as the master interpreter of an ancient music on original instruments. With so many stars only a pinch of the discipline and anything else is enough for successful recording. And this performance is much more than anything.
   An inspired and excellent performance of Concerto for Two Pianos E-flat Major KV 365 (316a) shows the power of vibrant cooperation. Bright, vivid phrases of Friedrich Gulda and gentle, calmly articulated answers of Chick Corea build the space for classical form. This is 10th Mozart’s concerto from 1779 and the next one is Concerto D Major KV 537 called Coronation Concerto from 1788. This is No. 26th in Mozart’s catalogue of piano concertos and one of his best works. In Teldec recording Friedrich Gulda builds supreme rendition of Mozart piano ideas with mild and virtuoso clearly sound of the orchestra. Intensity of emotions reminds early romantic music, although it is still classically balanced with musical expression and meanings, cozy in serene moments and rapidly serious in more intellectually fragments. Goulda’s piano is singing not only in Larghetto, but along the whole performance – despite the fact he is murmuring, what was quite normal and in good style on vinyl recordings era. Simplicity of these concertos comes with perfect performances and profound emotional narration.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Polish Jazz vol. 1 – Warsaw Stompers

   Jazz was alive in Poland a long time before the war. But the real history of Polish jazz had to begin in 1956. In the period of most intense communistic regime, jazz was underground music. And when in 1956, in time of political relaxation called the “Polish October” or “Polish thaw” it has changed, jazz had resonated like it was always ready. Although it was only temporary liberalization of political life in Poland, this was enough for jazz to come out of hiding. And jazz blossomed with new force, appearing first in the dance music, than simultaneously in traditional Dixieland style and in modern and cool jazz arrangements. Jazz concerts, festivals, records and magazines became common part of Polish culture.
   The traditional swing or even Dixieland bands were not only the first wave of official jazz but traditional or revival jazz, quite the same as in other communistic countries, remained solid part of Polish jazz scene in next decades. In modern jazz there was too much pessimism and traditional sounded sometimes just happy. New Orleans Stompers later known as Warsaw Stompers is the band playing with various lineups and achieving considerable popularity during first decade of official jazz life in Poland after the Polish October. This band was one of workshops where apprenticed future stars of Polish jazz, Henryk Majewski, Włodzimierz Gulgowski and many others.

Polish Jazz vol. 1 – Warsaw Stompers (1965)

   After 1956 Polskie Nagrania had begun to publish first jazz records. Some of them were groundbreaking, but most were just popular songs. Many were pure dance SP and EP records, just as some bands were working in ball rooms. Collecting some recordings from previous sessions of New Orleans Stompers and Warsaw Stompers, considering popularity of the band, in 1965 state culture authorities decided to publish album of this band. This was the moment Polskie Nagrania started the series of LPs under the heading Polish Jazz. And the album of Warsaw Stompers was the volume number one. What is sometimes misplaced as the record title – New Orleans Stompers – was in fact the prior name of the band. This was common practice with first volumes of Polish Jazz series, the names of the bands were used as the titles of most albums. Just like it were the onetime presentations organized as a kind of a documentary. Strong elements of this presentation were Polish songs opening B Side of the album, what was creative and politically correct gesture.

Warsaw Stompers – Ej przeleciał ptaszek (1965)

   There were more attributes clearly indicating the Warsaw Stompers’ production was regarded as an archive presentation. Most of the tracks were placed in chronological order as documenting consecutive recording sessions. The selection comprises choice of half decade, from two ragtimes by Wojciech Kacperski recorded April 10th 1959, to last four pieces recorded August 11th and 12th 1964. Most of material was recorded in 1963 when the style of the band was stable and group has been well recognized by public in Poland, acclaimed by critics and accepted by authorities.
   The choice of Warsaw Stompers is 16 songs filling the volume 1 of Polish Jazz series with heterogeneous content. This is the album of different tendencies and ideas, collected over the years. Older compositions are rawer in style and in performance, and newer recordings are played with heart and more swinging. Solos are more pronounced, expression is clear and humor less specific. Four songs arranged by Zbigniew Namysłowski and Henryk Majewski opening B Side of this record are probably the first successful attempt of creating a genuine Polish jazz tradition. One is based on folk tunes of Polish mountaineers and three of them are popular songs of Polish composers – Stanisław Moniuszko, Tadeusz Sygietyński i Stanisław Hadyna. This became the idée fixe for Zbigniew Namysłowski, alto saxophonist who in modern recordings was always looking for connections with native musical traditions. His later recordings in Polish Jazz series have become a confirmation of the trend.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Talking Heads – Little Creatures

   Late seventies and early eighties were the years of the defeat of artistic ambitions in rock and in progressive jazz. And probably main failure was experienced by art rock which was seen as eccentric thus more and more marginalized. In the time of corporation offensive against counterculture and the disco triumph on the world markets the only radical resistance was punk rock. In US this situation was more complicated because of the variety of social and cultural sets and attitudes. There was still very strong traditional position of country music, many subgenres of urban and R&B music, different kinds of rock, some even recognized as a part of popular culture, but counterculture in its semantic layer. A good example is radicalism of the early rap which has year by year changing into the shallow disco, but before that happened, he had a very strong social impact. Some American artists were still convicted of intellectual and social importance of rock music and aspiring to continue such mission just like many sub cultural rebels in Great Britain and some European countries, who were still strongly devoted to progressive ideas. One of such groups was Talking Heads.
   Talking Heads were formed as the quartet in 1975 and for more than a decade remained in its unchanged lineup. David Byrne was singer and guitar player, but he was also authoring the lyrics, most of the music and the frontman of the group. Drummer Chris Frantz, bass guitarist Tina Weymouth and keyboardist Jerry Harrison were also singing backing vocals. Although the band was formed and resided in New York City, none of musicians was native New Yorker. The leader was born in Scotland and definitely he was the driving force of the group. Beside the Talking Heads’ activity, Byrne was active as avant-garde musician, filmmaker, writer and artist. This is one of heaviest creative individualities of last four decades.

Talking Heads – Little Creatures (1985)

   Released in 1985, Little Creatures is the sixth album of Talking Heads and product intended to please every possible listener. Good production with quite a long list of guest appearances, with Lenny Pickett on saxophones, Naná Vasconcelos on percussion, Eric Weissberg on steel guitar and many others, makes this album a quintessence of what was good in pop rock of 80’s. Songs credited mainly for Byrne are clear although esoteric and sometimes quirky. Melodies are still derived from riffs which are main particles of these songs. Merging austerity of punk rock songs with art rock ambitions – which should be impossible combination itself – it was one of most successful albums of the decade. Even if this music is still located in subgenre sometimes disparagingly called “college rock”.
   Cover graphics of naïve artist and Baptist minister Howard Finster connects visions of new world and some religious verses. After years nine songs of this album can be seen as some kind of evergreen although any come back of this kind of pop rock is practically impossible. Once more pop music had only interim value and what was pop in Talking Heads’ music occurred to be “on the road to nowhere”. What was alternative or so called “art punk” may be still interesting even if it’s only a social history document. In fact it was more a product for the era of new world, than creating an alternative attitude which David Byrne did in many other projects. Three stars considering overall performance and Byrne’s lyrics.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Eduard van Beinum conducts Ravel and Debussy

   Each turn of the periods is very interesting time for many reasons. The collapse of the old order and the absence of new rules makes apparent whether the worst instincts and noblest dreams, allowing us better understand ourselves. Nineteenth century was a real explosion of extreme efforts in art and social improvements. After romantic ideas determined life of few generations, marking goals and setting ratings in every kind of creativity, a part or complete defiance was a natural reaction. And the stronger cultural changes were, the greater was the pressure for a change. In the end of the century many romantic ideas were looking just hackneyed schemes.  After defeat of Franco-Prussian war, opposition against “German romanticism” in the city on the River Seine was even more than natural pose. This may be the reason why among many composers developing modern idea of symphonic music the group of French artists was strongest.
   The cultural reaction gave development on many fields and in different new directions. One of clearest anti-romantic styles was impressionism, inspired by new painting school. Marking anti-romantic turn, composers changed position of melodic factor and spread coloristic using of harmonic elements. As every kind of an avant-garde artistic action, impressionism in music was the movement of very few artists. In fact there were two French composers who highlighted the route, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The others, Frederic Delius, Manuel de Falla, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Karol Szymanowski, Arnold Bax, Paul Dukas and Maurice Duruflé were not so closely connected and not consequently “impressionistic”. Ironically, the most prominent representatives of this style did never recognize themselves as the Impressionist composers. And in fact impressionism is not as clearly the style as the attitude to sound colors and orchestration and even best works of Debussy and Ravel are rather representation of their personal style than any impressionistic pattern.

Eduard van Beinum conducts Ravel and Debussy (1972)

   One of iconic manifestations of new style called impressionism is Claude Debussy’s La mer (1905), subheaded as trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestra (three symphonic sketches for orchestra). This three part composition is often interpreted as a cycle of symphonic pictures. First De l'aube à midi sur la mer in B minor and very slow tempo shows changes of the sea between down to the midday. Next two composed in C-sharp minor are more animated, showing Jeux de vagues (Play of waves) and Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the sea). Many musicologists see this cycle in relation to romantic symphony, and some features justify considering this work as the open symphonic form. Interpretations of this work one can find in almost every symphonic orchestra discography ant the one especially full of colorful and sensitive moments is the rendition recorded by Eduard van Beinum and Concertgebouworkest in Amsterdam.
   In late 50’s Eduard van Beinum with Concertgebouw-Orchester he led, made for Phillips series of archival recordings. From this series three recordings were choosen for album presenting highlights of impressionistic music: Claude Debussy’s La mer and two later Ravel’s works, choreographic poem La valse (1920) and his most famous balet Bolero (1928). Amsterdam orchestra recorded these works in the daring style of virtuoso band. Ravel’s and Debussy’s music is giving performers many chances to show deep coloristics and harmonic nuances and expressive possibilities of French modern symphonic style. This recording documents good years of legendary orchestra successful under the baton of great conductor. Ravel’s symphonic works were recorded in 1958 and Debussy’s in 1959. The album is very interesting for historical and artistic values. It is widely known in 1972 edition of Eterna – original pressing with black labels or in reprint with blue label. Vintage recordings and well produced album. Until it’s in perfect quality, album deserves four stars out of five.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bernard Haitink conducts Maurice Ravel

   In outburst of impressionistic music, two names are commonly cited – Claude Debussy’s and Maurice Ravel’s. Both were great composers, both created new idea of musical language. But even between these two great individuals, one composer occupies a separate although still prominent place. While Debussy’s idea was widely adopted by composers who treated it as a core of new trend, Ravel’s works imitation was very difficult if at all possible. Maurice Ravel was great impressionist, but most of his works are composed without the idiomatic elements of impressionism like blurred rhythm or vague harmonics. The secret ingredient of Ravel’s style was absolute masterity of orchestration augmenting orchestral coloristic possibilities.
   Maurice Ravel has strong connections with dance music, which was giving him an inspiration for developing phrases and melodic lines in accordance to the rules of human body movement. Also his dance music was always more than accompaniment only. Ravel described his ballet Daphnis et Chloé as a “symphonie choréographique”, which means this music was intentionally meaningful and self sufficient. Sometimes the name of the dance in title of Ravel’s work was only reference to particular moment in history and emotional context. Series of ephemeral feelings included in shimmering orchestral colors were the background of his impressionistic compositions.

Concertgebouw-Orchester plays Ravel (1987)

   Undeniably impressionistic music demands full spectrum of orchestra capabilities. Many layers of musical narration, decisive role of sound quality, fine nuances in articulation and dynamics are the features giving Ravel’s music exceptional style. The perfect recordings of Ravel’s works made by Concertgebouw-Orchestra in Amsterdam show how great this orchestra really is. From many editions of Ravel’s works played by Amsterdam orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink, Eduard van Beinum and Ricardo Chaily, one almost forgotten masterpiece is series of performances recorded in September 1961 in Amsterdam Grotezaal. It was published in 1987 by Eterna, the East-German label of great merit in building cultural bridges over the political borders. These recordings were also reedited and published on CD augmented with recorded in 1971 “Daphnis et Chloé” Suite No. 1 by Decca Eloquence label in Australia.
   The vinyl album includes only four 1961 recordings. Perfect rendition of “Daphnis et Chloé” Suite No. 2 in sound and rhythmic changes gives nice notion of idiomatic impressionism. This work could be an emblem of impressionism, especially in fragments giving feeling the vision is full of light. The dark and soft melody of Pavane pour une infante défunte is like an answer although it was composed before the suite. The rule of contrast comes back in two pieces filling B-Side, full of sparkling humor Alborada del gracioso and symphonic Rapsodie espagnole are two works of joyous, dancing energy and subtle, silky sounds giving sense of enchanting picture. Balancing between restrained emotionalism and light cleverness Bernard Haitink gave absolutely astonishing vision of Ravel’s works and Concertgebouw-Orchestra played this with the best sound one can imagine.
   The cover of Eterna album features Max Slevogt’s painting The dancer Marietta di Rigardo. The natural size image of the Spanish dancer is in possession of New Masters Gallery in Dresden. The piece was painted in 1904, so it is contemporary to the Ravel’s music, these pieces were composed between 1899 (Pavane) and 1912 (Daphnis et Chloé). The portrait of dancing lady perfectly fits the music, showing fine example of German impressionism.