Archive for May, 2007

Borrowing, building on Southeast Asian tradition

May 30, 2007

Gamelan Pacifica: Trance Gong


Before I try to explain exactly what a gamelan is, let me share a quote with you that beautifully captures the spirit of gamelan music. I shamelessly cadged it from the Internet somewhere; it is attributed to Jaap Kunst, who wrote on the music of Java in the 1930s and ’40s: “Gamelan is comparable to only two things, moonlight and flowing water. …mysterious like moonlight and always changing like flowing water…”

Cool, but what is it? A gamelan is a traditional Indonesian instrumental ensemble typically featuring a variety of percussion instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, drums, and gongs. Bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings and vocalists may also be included. Although a gamelan is a set of instruments requiring as many as 17 or 18 musicians to play everything, it is seen as a single entity, built and tuned to stay together.

Gamelan are found in the Indonesian islands of Java, Madura, Bali, and Lombok, and gamelanlike instruments are ubiquitous throughout much of Southeast Asia.

They’ve also found a home within the academic hippie Birkensock crowd [people who wear socks with their Birkenstocks, a wonderfully snarky term I picked up from daughter Laurel]. While my tastes in music don’t generally track with this group [don’t get me started on what passes for music on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion], I must admit I’ve embraced gamelan music. Gamelan orchestras and societies have sprung up throughout the western world.

Gamelan Pacifica is one such group, but with a twist. Based at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, they use the gamelan to perform new music, much of it composed by group founder Jarrad Powell. One of the six tracks on this disk is even a composition by John Cage, arranged with his permission for the gamelan by Powell. Still, the music retains the essential spirit of the traditional music of Java and Bali. Partly because the group nods heavily towards these traditions in its work and partly, I have to imagine, because that’s where the gamelan wants the music to go. And where it goes is a magical place. A place of moonlight and flowing water.

This very white boy plays the blue very well

May 23, 2007

Johnny Winter: Johnny Winter


Okay, let’s start by saying yes, at least some white boys can indeed play the blues. Play the hell out of them, in fact. Some, of course, cannot and should stop right now. I mean it.

But few white boys can play them as well as Johnny Winter can. And ironically, few are as white as this albino blues powerhouse. Starting out as a rock guitarist, Winter let the blues world know in no uncertain terms that he had arrived with this self-titled album in 1969. Unlike many white boys, he neither softened the real blues sound nor rockified the music to appeal to a broader audience.

To get that sound, he not only played it, he backed himself up with the real deal: blues legend Willie Dixon on piano, harmonica ace Walter Horton. Even more telling when it comes to him nailing the sound is that he’s played on recordings by Muddy Waters and other blues giants. Just listen to his guitar and you’ll see why. Whether he’s playing a driving electric solo or acoustic slide, the music is pure and true.

I need to take a moment and provide a little caveat here: You’re either a fan of Winter’s high growl of a voice or you’re not. I am. And he shows some surprising range with it. Ray Charles had perhaps one of the most soulful voices on the planet, but his rendition of I’ll Drown in my Own Tears falls far short of where Winter takes it on this disk.

I’ve listened to other albums by Winter over the years. This one remains my favorite. If you like the blues, this white boy’s music belongs in your collection.

Back to Blue Kitchen

Easy to listen to, but not easy listening

May 16, 2007

Joshua Redman: Passage of Time


Saxophonist Joshua Redman is nothing if not prolific, having produced a dozen or so albums since bursting on the jazz scene in the early 90s. He has also been maddeningly all over the map stylistically. For me, that means every album is something of a crapshoot. A couple of times, he has totally blown me away. On other occasions, he has just blown.

Passage of Time falls somewhere in the middle, kind of a solid B. The opening cut, Before, is a solo piece just under two minutes long. It is perhaps the most exciting track on the disk, promising inventiveness and challenges that the other seven tracks don’t quite deliver, at least to my woefully untrained ear.

That said, as I write this, I’m actively listening to the album and thinking, “Oh, wait, that was nice… and that… that too.” It really is very listenable jazz by very accomplished musicians. The problem for me is that I have to remind myself to actively listen. Focused as I am now, I’m totally grooving on it. When I’ve had it on in the kitchen or on my iPod, it keeps sliding into the background.

As inventive and sparkling as some of the music is, the solos all seem to color within the lines too much. The music all flows together a little too seamlessly; you never hear the soloists pushing back, straining against the melody. But perhaps that’s just my inner New Yorker, my hard bop-loving ear getting in the way.

And all that said, maybe the balance of inventiveness and seamlessness makes it perfect dinner music. This is not audio wallpaper. It’s not so assertive as to get in the way of conversation, but it’s interesting enough to occasionally catch your ear and add to the moment, maybe even make a guest stop and ask, “What are we listening to?” And ask it in a good way.

Back to Blue Kitchen

A college kid learns a thing or two

May 9, 2007

Joseph Calleja: The Golden Voice


Back when I was a smartass college kid who knew everything, one of my relatives had a neighbor, Miss Mazola, an old tough cookie of an Italian-American woman who worked in a factory and lived alone in her modest, neat house on a busy St. Louis street. She had a loud, grating voice, a coarse laugh and social habits that reminded me too much of my own family’s blue collar background, one I was running from as fast as I possibly could. So naturally, I sneered at her. Discreetly, of course. As a smartass college kid who knew everything, it goes without saying that I was sensitive to others’ feelings, especially poor uneducated souls like Miss Mazola.

So imagine my surprise when one Saturday afternoon, having been volunteered by my relative to help Miss Mazola move something heavy in her house, I walked in and heard the weekly broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera playing on the radio. Turned out she listened every Saturday, without fail. As someone who prided himself on liking classical music, but not even vaguely ready to accept opera, I suddenly had to look at Miss Mazola in a whole new light. On the one hand, I have to admit I was impressed. On the other, I was more than a little bit resentful. Smartass college kids who know everything hate to be shown up as lacking in any regard, mainly because deep down inside, we’re nothing but one giant trainwreck of insecurities and inadequacies, imagined or otherwise.

Eventually, though, I did grow to like opera. I’m still very much a tyro as a fan—I can’t begin to tell you the story of all but a few operas. I just like the way it sounds and mostly think of the voices as instruments.

Which brings me to Joseph Calleja and this album, The Golden Voice. On first listen, both Marion and I were struck by how much this young Maltese-born tenor sounded like Caruso. I’m sure the producers and engineers did everything they could to capitalize on the similarity. The sound is indeed golden and the overall effect wonderfully pleasing.

But the format, a series of 14 arias—a couple of them duets with sopranos Anna Netrebko and Tatiana Lisnic—but all backed by the same orchestra [okay, it was tThe Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, but still], delivers an overall experience with the dramatic operatic corners rounded off. Granted, listening to an entire opera with its huge dynamic range can send you constantly running for the volume control—this sometimes drives me crazy about classical music in general. But this album kind of suffers from the opposite: too much uniformity in volume and tempo and tone.

All that said, it really is beautiful—very, very listenable. It can give you a lovely taste of opera without the wild mood swings. And hearing Calleja’s Carusoesque voice filling our apartment, I found myself transported to Miss Mazola’s living room, reminded of the surprises everyone has inside if you just take a moment to find them.

Back to Blue Kitchen

Powerful rock—without power chords

May 2, 2007

Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha


The kitchen boombox has been heavy on the jazz lately. I thought it was time to pop something else on. And to further break the pattern, this is actually a new release!

My tastes in rock music lean heavily to power chords and F-bombs, preferably strung together in fast and LOUD punk songs that get in and get out in a couple of minutes or so. When I hear it live, I want to need earplugs and feel the bass in my chest.

So Mr. Bird’s latest disk, Armchair Apocrypha, was something of a departure for me. With lush violins, organs, acoustic guitars and even whistling, he weaves music much more layered and complex than the stuff I usually gravitate toward. One thing that makes it work for me is that, as Amazon reviewer Scott Holter says, “Strip away the music of an Andrew Bird song, and you’re left with brilliant prose.” To which I add prose that is not self-conscious, precocious or twee. Genuinely smart, indeed educated, language that he pulls off without sounding like he’s showing off. Rather, it sounds like he is just always paying attention. To everything.

The music sounds like that too. There are references to everything from Chinese music to Lou Reed. But they’re not done like Beck’s overt embraces of various genres [and don’t get me wrong—I love Beck]. Instead, you get the sense that Bird is always listening, always absorbing, always processing.

Even though I’ve found the album to be quite interesting [especially if I think of it just as music and not as rock—even alternative rock], you’d be totally justified in wondering what drew punk-loving me to it in the first place. It was the cover. What an amazing photograph. Simply amazing. Bird played on Letterman one night, and when Dave held up the cover, I was mesmerized. I only half listened to the music as I ran to the computer to get another look at the cover art on Amazon. Our friend Alma actually turned us on to the music itself. I like it. A lot. But when my third or fourth playing of it in as many days ended today on the subway ride home, I cued up a punk mix on my iPod and set the volume to “eleven!

Back to Blue Kitchen