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January 2012

Eliza Garth Celebrates the John Cage Centennial

by Michael Cirigliano II

Eliza Garth, Merkin Concert Hall

For her contribution to the centennial celebrations of John Cage’s birth, pianist Eliza Garth presented the composer’s magnum opus for prepared piano, Sonatas and Interludes. In the sprawling and exotic 70-minute work, presented at Merkin Concert Hall on Sunday night, Cage sought to translate his adoration for Hindu aesthetics into a large-scale work comprised of short, almost arabesque-like movements. The noted Cage scholar James Pritchett called the work, “a big piece with a quiet voice,” which perfectly summarizes the limitations of the prepared-piano medium. 

The placement of objects on the strings of the piano (the “preparation”) muted and dampened the piano’s timbre, often transforming the instrument’s usually bold voice into an intimate series of sounds imitating gongs, chimes, and other percussive elements. In fact, the strength of Sonatas and Interludes lies in Cage’s ability to write for the piano not only as a melodic instrument, but also to unleash the instrument’s inherent percussive potential.

In Garth’s hands, the work managed to find the right balance between expression and percussion. At times, Garth made her instrument sound like a line of tribal drums; at others, a group of strummed string instruments. With a number of the piano’s 88 keys left unprepared, Garth worked to project the rounded sound of the unaltered pitches in the context of the staccato sounds of the prepared keys. As the piece progressed and each movement grew in maturity and length, florid elements abounded, calling to mind the piano music of Debussy. The performance became vibrant in these moments, with the cascading beauty of the piano’s ringing tone sounding alongside the gamelan-like sounds of the prepared pitches.

Despite the limitations of the prepared piano (changes are not made to the preparation of strings during the performance), Garth produced a wide-ranging palette of sounds. And, through it all, her Zen-like approach to the performance was captivating—right down to her methodically slow page turns and deep, strategic breaths between movements. Garth made the evening’s silences as poignant as the sounds; one can only imagine how Cage himself would have cherished that.

Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard

by Brian Weidy

Mingus Big Band
Playing their regular weekly show on a blustery evening last night at the Jazz Standard, the Mingus Big Band offered up their new arrangements of classic Charles Mingus tunes. This fourteen-piece band - which has been playing weekly gigs in NYC for more than 20 years - uses a roating group of musicians, making Mingus' music feel fresh every Monday despite being decades old.

Playing with a degree of cohesion even trios rarely attain, the large band snaked their way through the depths of Mingus' catalog, starting their set with a more than twenty-minute take on "Gunslinging Bird": a song which traverses many different tempos and dynamics to create a near-perfect cacophony of sound. "Fables of Faubus," about the infamous Arkansas governor, featured Frank Lacy doing an almost-rap on Mingus' most political tune.

Bass player and band leader Boris Kozlov filled Mingus's shoes more than admirably, introducing "The Children's Hour of Dream" as a movement from Mingus' posthumously released Epitaph: a 26 movement "jazz symphony" featuring many of Mingus' signature quick tempo changes, shifting keys, and other complexities which the band performed with precision and ease.

Closing the five-song, hour-long set were "GG Train" and "Casanova," the latter an obscure, slow-paced tune that capped off a great set of music.

Charles Bradley Invokes James Brown at Hiro Ballroom

by Talia Page

Charles Bradley's story is an interesting one.  Born in Florida and raised in Brooklyn, Bradley fell on hard times repeatedly throughout the course of his 63 years, working as a chef in a mental hospital and suffering through the tragic murder of his brother in his mother's home. As a result, he was never fully able to pursue his lifelong passion for music.  After spending much of his life traveling to various cities and states across the country, Bradley finally got the attention of Gabriel Roth of Daptone Records when he performed his James Brown tribute act at Bedstuy's Tarheel Lounge in the early 2000s. Roth connected Bradley with Thomas Brenneck, guitarist for both the Budos Band and the Dap Kings, who helped Bradley record his debut LP, No Time For Dreaming, which landed on many of last year's best-of lists. 

Last night at Hiro Ballroom, Bradley revived his James Brown tribute as Black Velvet, backed by Jimmy Hill and the Allstarz Band.  With a clear passon for his idol, Bradley defied both age and gravity as he danced, bounced, and writhed like a man half his age through the Godfather's greatest hits.  During wardrobe changes, the audience was treated to a series of female vocalists performing Gladys Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia", Beyonce's "Love on Top", and the late Etta James' "At Last," effectively covering the bases of the all-ages audience.

Bradley, who is gearing up for a worldwide tour with his Extraordinaries, is living proof that good things really do come to those who wait.