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February 2011

Bad-Ass Octogenarians

DSC05840An extraordinary double bill by a pair of living masters last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater. It was, I'm sad to say, the first time I was in the space for an actual jazz show (my most recent visits were during last fall's White Light Festival.) It most definitely won't be the last.

The Rose Theater, which seats 1,200 in a circular space, was built to give jazz the permanent grand stage it deserves: not unlike the concert halls of the Montreaux and Montreal Jazz Festivals, but with greater intimacy and better acoustics.

DSC05842First up was alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, 83, whose been playing since the mid 40's. (Go here for a classic 1950's rendition of "My Melancholy Baby" with Bill Evans.) Considered one of the founders of "cool jazz", Konitz has been moving towards more free jazz in recent years, filling out his quartet with folks like percussionist Joey Baron, best known from his time with Bill Frisell and John Zorn.  

DSC05857The main draw, though, was Ahmad Jamal, 80, who Stanley Crouch claims is "second only to Charlie Parker in the development of post-1945 jazz." (Miles Davis was a huge fan, and tailored his own sound around Jamal's spaciousness and lyricism.) Jamal brought with him his longtime sidemen James Cammack (bass) and Herlin Riley (drums), along with newcomer percussionist Manolo Badrena, who played everything from African bowls to conch shells.

Jamal played with elegance and fire, his fingers flying over the keys like someone half his age. Naturally, Jamal played "Poinciana," the jungle-laced hit off 1958's At the Pershing, along with a copious selection of tracks from last year's A Quiet Time. The crowd ate it all up, calling the band back for at least two encores. (It was hard to tell, as Jamal never actually left the stage.)

If you missed last night, Konitz and Jamal are back on stage once more tonight at the Rose Theater; tickets should be available at the box office. (More pics on Flickr.)

Comfortable Shoes Required

TullyScopeLogo (1)Emf_logo (1)

What is this, SXSW?

Tonight, it'll certainly feel like it as I shuffle back and forth along upper Broadway to catch a pair of stellar contemporary music events that both deserve your undivided attention. (Seriously.) First stop: Tully Scope at Alice Tully Hall, where Axiom will be performing music by Morton Feldman (Rothko Chapel) and György Kurtág (Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova). 

Then, it's a couple of blocks north to the Kaufman Center for the Ecstatic Music Festival, where Darcy Argue's Secret Society and David T. Little's Newspeak will be joining forces, writing new works for each other's ensemble, including Darcy's first-ever composition for voice (or for anyone other than the Secret Society.) Oh, and bad-ass jazz composer/pianist Vijay Iyer will be along for the ride as well, kicking in his own new composition for big band.

Times like this I wish I had a stringer. Any volunteers?


DSC05822Another week, another festival...

This time, it's the inaugural Tully Scope Festival, which kicked off Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall with a performance by the International Contemporary Ensemble (better known as ICE.) Unlike last fall's White Light Festival - which was programmed around the theme of spirituality - there doesn't seem to be a discrete purpose to this festival. Rather, as Jane explained to me during the post-concert reception, it's about celebrating the hall itself, as well as "the many diverse strands of NYC's musical life." Of course, that doesn't explain what a percussion ensemble from Strasbourg and an early music ensemble from Mexico are doing on the bill, but ok.

Work kept me from making it in time for the free performance of Nathan Davis' Bells in the atrium, which reportedly employed winds, percussion and a chorus of cell phones: sounds like it was some sort of cross between Phil Kline and Dan Deacon. From the giddy, packed crowd I encountered immediately after, it seems to have been just the kind of invocation this eclectic new festival was calling for.

Inside the hall, the evening was centered around the music of Morton Feldman, the late NYC composer whose elongated, minimialist works seem to have caught the imagination of new-gen audiences: the hall was filled with a diverse mix of young and old, wearing everything from suits to skinny jeans. ("Feldman always brings out young people," Jane told me.)

Percussionist Steven Schick opened the concert with Feldman's The King of Denmark: a short work (6 mins) that settled over the hall like a sheer fabric, hushed to the degree that the gentle cymbals and chimes were often drowned out by patrons' coughs. (Way to go, NYC.) 

DSC05818The balance of the program - performed by ICE, with Schick conducting - was something of a tug-of-war between formalism and compositional freedom. Webern's dense "Concerto for Nine Instruments" (7 mins) was textbook serialism, chock-full of dense atonality. Xenakis' Jalons (14 mins) was structured around a strict mathematical formula while at the same time sounding almost primitive, with guttural, multiphonic winds and percussion. 

After intermission, things loosened up considerably. Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (5 mins) was an aleatoric experiment for 12 portable radios, with the score indicating only when the volume on each radio should be raised/lowered, or its frequency altered. This sort of thing has become somewhat commonplace in new music circles - see Radio Wonderland or Scanner - but was fairly radical for 1951.

Because of the relative brevity of all the preceding works, Feldman's For Samuel Beckett - which clocked in at a not-unreasonable 44 minutes - seemed luxuriously long. Like its' namesake's plays and novels, there was no structure, no discernible direction to the music: all sense of time and presence was blurred. Instead, the repetitions and flat harmonics created an open space with which you could do whatever you wanted: contemplation, concentration, sleep. Remarkably, noone stormed out the way they did when Dan pushed our buttons a few weeks ago: on the contrary, the crowd whooped and hollered its unanimous approval. Go figure.

There will be more Feldman tonight, with Juilliard new music ensemble Axiom performing his monumental Rothko Chapel (along with music by György Kurtág.) And remember: if you were there Tuesday, you get in tonight for $20; more info on the Tully Scope website.

DSC05820 More pics on Flickr.