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No. 58 - November, 2006

Jason Victor Serinus


CD of the Month:

* SUSANNE ABBUEHL * COMPASS * ECM 

Other CDs Reviewed this Month:

* ELISE LEBEC: POSSIBLE DREAMS

* SCHUBERT: TROUT QUINTET * LEOPOLD STRING TRIO *

* GARY MALKIN: WINTERFAITH

* HANDEL: DELIRIO * NATALIE DESSAY *EMMANUELLE HAIM

* CHARLES LLOYD, ZAKIR HUSSAIN & ERIC HARLAND * SANGAM * JONATHAN CROW, DOUGLAS MCNABNEY & MATT HAIMOVITZ *

* MOZART THE MASON

* HONORING (REAL MYSTIC)

* RALPH TOWNER * TIME LINE

* JOHN LEE HOOKER, JR * COLD AS ICE 

ELISE LEBEC: POSSIBLE DREAMS * LECD 41324

 

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I'm hooked. Elise Lebec may categorize her impressions for solo piano as "New Age," but I'm content to call them beautiful. Inspired by nature, love, and hope for the future, Lebec's 14 original compositions mix familiar harmonies with occasionally surprising tempo and dynamic changes. Wonderfully recorded, with the natural deep resonance and ringing top that befit a former Steinway Piano-sponsored artist, Lebec's music benefits from an unpretentious harmonic sophistication that distinguishes it from the heap.

Born in San Diego, the daughter of "a hippie who sat on the lawn and played the guitar a lot," Elise Lebec was raised on George Winston, Enya, Loreena McKinnit and Andreas Vollenweider. Beethoven, the Beetles, and other influences followed. In New Zealand she performed at charity concerts. In Australia, she collaborated with painter Charles Billich, the official artist for the 1996 Olympics, producing an album under the name Tabitha Lebec. Later she co-founded the band Post Pop Federation, opened for Sheryl Crow, and worked in Europe and Nashville as pianist, vocalist, and composer with a host of music luminaries. Songs she's written with Pat Robinson are slated to appear in six forthcoming films, with one of her own songs and vocals slated for "Americanizing Shelly." The woman has a lot going for her, all of which can be heard in her lovely, gratifying compositions that stimulate the mind while soothing the spirit.

 

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Schubert's Glorious Trout

Few other works in the chamber literature have achieved the popularity of Franz Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet. Otherwise known as the Piano Quintet in A major, D667, it was most likely composed in the summer of 1819, when the composer was 22 years old.

Schubert wrote the quintet at the request of Sylvester Paumgartner, a music lover, amateur cellist, and assistant manager of an iron mine who was completely captivated by Schubert's delightful song, "Die Forelle" ("The Trout"). But where the short song tells the of a sly fisherman who uses deception to snare a blissfully innocent trout, the 'Trout' Quintet is all about lightness and freedom.

Distinguished by the unabashedly joyful trout theme and five variations of its penultimate movement, the 40-minute quintet seems to bubble right on by, with Schubert's obvious delight in composing such an ebullient piece making for irresistible listening. The contrast between the almost unbridled exuberance of the opening Allegro vivace, the gentle and relaxed spirituality of the subsequent Andante, and the whizzing energy of the fast Scherzo, all lead inexorably to the marvelous theme and variations and endearing Finale.

 

SCHUBERT: TROUT QUINTET * LEOPOLD STRING TRIO * HYPERION CDA67527

 

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No less than three major label recordings of the 'Trout' have crossed my desk in the past year. While each has its strengths, the most recent, featuring Great Britain's Leopold String Trio augmented by fast-rising pianist Paul Lewis and double bassist Graham Mitchell, has caused me to hit repeat an almost embarrassing number of times. Framed the only completed movement – the Allegro - of Schubert's String Trio in B flat major, D471 plus the complete String Trio in B flat major, D581, the Leopold 'Trout' also ranks as the most clearly and naturally recorded of the bunch.

A good share of the success lies with Paul Lewis. The protege of pianist Alfred Brendel takes marked delight in tickling the keys, darting all over the place with a freshness and joy that find their parallel in the composer's seemingly unstoppable stream of brilliant melodic invention.

Around Lewis' piano, which creates a flowing, watery core, the strings dart left and right, at times balancing and answering each other as if leaping from one side of the stream to the other. The benefit of a performance by a string trio with a 15-year, award-winning history can be heard in their oneness of mind, producing a rendition thoroughly thought out yet played as though for the first time.

Specific highlights: Where the much touted Belcea Quartet augmented by pianist/composer Thomas AdËs (EMI) draw out the Finale by playing all three of Schubert's repeats, the Leopold version benefits immenselfy by cutting one of them. The Leopolds and friends also do the most with the theme and variations. Enjoy the contrast between the gentle slowness of the opening theme and the rollicking, almost carnival-like vitality of the 3rd variation; the latter features Lewis in outstanding form, his hands effortlessly flying all over the place.

The delicacy of the playing on the third recent release, featuring Braley/Capucon/CaussÈ/Capucon/Posch (again on EMI), and the wondrous sweetness of Renaud Capucon's Guarneri, cannot be denied. Yet the new Hyperion disc has the touch of genius about it. The delights of the works with which the Leopolds frame the 'Trout' make their disc a perfect introduction to the melodic miracles of Franz Schubert.

 

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GARY MALKIN: WINTERFAITH * WISDOM OF THE WORLD WW005

 

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Legions of New Age pianists could learn more than a thing or two from Bay Area composer Gary Malkin. Where most plunge ahead, heaping one note upon another as though terrified of the possibility of silence, Malkin is content to let the notes comes as they will. He pauses, reflects, speeds up and slows down, modulates volume, and pitches his voice as his heart speaks to him in the moment. The result is an hour-plus CD of great beauty.

Winterfaith has a consistently gentle, unwaveringly wistful quality. The notes fall from Malkin's fingers like gentle snowflakes melting on a windowpane, as though the composer/pianist were gazing out at a lovely, pristine winter landscape. In this particular case, one gathers from the brief liner notes that the landscape is internal. As Malkin states, "Not until life brought me to my own winter was I truly ready [to create the piano recording I had dreamt of my whole life]." Spontaneously composed in one night's session as a tribute to those he loves, the CD represents the artist's escape from his own inner critic, which constantly declared he was not ready to make such a disc. There's certainly no fear in the sixth track, "Endless," which exhibits chromatic progressions that might terrify those who believe that spiritual music only springs from major chords. Somewhat inspired by the pianism of Keith Jarrett and Eric Satie, this lovely excursion will win many admirers for an Emmy and ASCAP award-winning composer for film and television who treads a path of service.

 

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HANDEL: DELIRIO * NATALIE DESSAY *EMMANUELLE HAIM * VIRGIN CLASSICS 094633 26242 3

 

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Heads up, lovers of great singing! High-flying French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay has scored another triumph with this exquisite disc of three Italian Cantatas by George Frideric Handel.

As ideal in the romantic roles of Donizetti, Gounod, Strauss, and Offenbach as in the earlier music of Mozart, Monteverdi, and Handel, Dessay sings with a freedom and purity most sopranos only dream about. In tones intentionally shorn of pretentious operatic glamour, she sings with a direct, deeply felt sincerity rendered all the more miraculous for the freedom with which she negotiates Handel's torturous runs of emotionally-charged notes. Listen how, in the extended, 12-movement cantata Delirio amoroso, her voice soars to the stratosphere and then all over the emotional landscape on the words, "Let a thought fly up to heaven, if in heaven is that lovely soul who stole my peace of mind."

Expressing the feelings of an agitated woman "erratic in her thoughts, but always beautiful," Dessay's heartbreaking utterances are made all the more pathetic for the spring-like sweetness in which they are uttered. Equal credit goes to director Emmanuelle Haim, whose authentic instrument Le Concert d'Astree performs with rare, understated clarity. The transparency of the playing, with notes lightly touched as though by a zephyr, is irresistible. Accolades to violinist Stephanie-Marie Degand – to all the soloists, actually – for the virtuosity they display in their duets with Dessay. This is a CD to treasure.

 

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CHARLES LLOYD, ZAKIR HUSSAIN & ERIC HARLAND * SANGAM *

ECM 1976

 

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Listening to this first outing of legendary jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd's new Sangam Trio, it is hard to decide who's more mesmerizing: the phenomenal Indian tabla master, Zakir Hussain; Lloyd on tenor and alto sax, bass and alto flutes, tarogato (whatever that is), piano, and percussion; or relatively young buck Eric Harland on drums, percussion, and piano. Recorded live in Santa Barbara in September 2004, Hussain's percussion sometimes comes from the left channel, Harland's from the right, with stereo effects reminiscent of the old Command demo lps that fascinated hi-fi virgins at the dawn of the stereo era. The way these two men play off each other, while Lloyd wails away in their midst as though all life depends upon it, is breathtaking.

With great modesty, Lloyd has said of his collaborations, "When the spirit is blowing, I know I have to hoist my sails to catch the breeze." One of jazz's greats, he has worked with everyone from Ornette Coleman to Keith Jarrett, while absorbing influences as far ranging as Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bela Bartok, Gabor Szabo, Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan, and a host of Indian musicians. He epitomizes the spiritual essence of sangam, which literally or metaphorically signifies confluence, a meeting place, a gathering or coming together.

This music was neither rehearsed nor planned out in advance; it literally happened on the spot. When Hussain asked Lloyd in what key he should tune the tabla, Lloyd responded, "Oh just tune to the key of the universe." Hussain decided the universe hums in B-flat, and away they went. The men share a spiritual bond, reflected in the titles of their nine improvisations -- e.g. "Tales of Rumi," "Hymn to the Mother," and "Little Peace" -- and the faith that their music will cohere. Cohere it does, as when the brief, exquisitely lyrical piano excursion "Nataraj" gives way to the restrained mysticism of "Guman," as percussionists move around the stage before Hussain begins to sing sweetly to sparse accompaniment. Even late and reluctant converts to jazz, such as myself, can be easily hooked by such musical miracles.

 

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JONATHAN CROW, DOUGLAS MCNABNEY & MATT HAIMOVITZ *

MOZART THE MASON * OXINGALE OX2008

 

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Recorded in Quebec one year after Sangam, this recording presents an equally fresh trio performing music as spiritual, albeit more tonal, as the Sangam Trio's. Here the instruments are of the traditional Western string trio - violin, viola, and cello – played with enviable restraint, as if of one mind, by compatriot faculty members at McGill University.

The CD begins with one of the only two complete works for string trio in Mozart's catalogue, his transcription of J.S. Bach's Preludes and Fugues, K404a. In this trio's hands, it is fascinating to hear Bach's baroque classicism illuminated in soft, quasi-romantic light.

More classic in its approach is Mozart's mature Divertimento in E flat, K563, composed three years before his death at age 35. Violinist Jonathan Crow, Concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, has a bright-edged, finely focused sweet sound that harmonizes beautifully with Douglas McNabney's viola. Award-winning cellist Matt Haimovitz balances the higher strings with an exceedingly warm, almost self-effacing touch that gently reaches into the heart of Mozart's mature masterpiece. We may not be consciously aware of the Masonic ideals and symbolic numbers that Mozart expresses in the work, which shares the same key as the composer's other great tribute to the Masonic order, The Magic Flute, but its nobility of expression speaks volumes. The extended second movement Adagio is exquisite, the three musicians dialoguing with a heartfelt, elevated grace that seems the antithesis of the tripe that passes for public discourse in the 21st century. There is no opposition here, just the embrace of all that is pure and kind. Listen to the high spirits of the first Minuet, and the joy and humor of a composer who so easily tuned into the essence of cosmic balance. What a beautiful way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. 

 

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SUSANNE ABBUEHL * COMPASS * ECM 1906

 

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I'm not easily seduced, but Susanne Abbuehl has had her way with me. On her sophomore outing from the ever-adventurous ECM label – her 2001 debut disc, April, won the Edison Music Award – the understated Swish-Dutch singer's half-voiced utterances, as clear as speech, haunt the consciousness in ways that most jazz singers merely hint at. Two of Abbuehl's arrangements, "Black is the Color" and "Lo FiolairÈ" (popularized in Joseph Canteloube's settings of Songs of the Auvergne) are based on Luciano Berio's justly famous arrangements of Folk Songs from many lands. "Lo FiolairÈ" in particular is distinguished by the soft, resonant lines of Christof May and Michel Portal's clarinet/bass clarinet accompaniment, which dance with mystic grace behind Abbuehl's breathy utterances.

Abbuehl's original songs, including four settings of works by James Joyce, and others from Feng Meng-Lung and William Carlos Williams, are wondrous in their subtlety. Paying tribute to some of our jazz greats, she also puts words to Sun Ra's "A Call for All Demons" and Chick Corea's "Children's Song No. 1." (The sparse bass, bass clarinet, drum, wood block and gong accompaniment on the Corea track, with lots of space between sounds, is beyond words, and Pianist Wolfert Brederode and percussionist Lucas Niggli know just when to play, and when to remain silent).

This is brilliant work. Certain to win a large following among jazz intellectuals, the haunting tracks of Compass, are best heard in half-light, with both eyes open.

 

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HONORING * REAL MUSIC/REAL MYSTIC RM 1279

 

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Real Music's Real Mystic imprint again pairs an hour-long compilation of Eastern-based, spiritual music with a lovely, 16-minute meditation led by label founder Terrence Yallop. The musical selections blend seamlessly, as if they were meant to be together; all speak to the core, heartfelt essence of the New Age. Many of the musicians are well known: Karunesh, Ben Leinbach, Buedi Siebert, and the beautiful voiced Deva Premal rub shoulders with others perhaps less well known but no less gifted.

What sets this CD apart from others is the care with which the tracks have been programmed. Yallop clearly understands what music speaks of transcendence, and what gets trapped in denial and maya (illusion). Whether for solo flight, healing work, or sharing with intimate friends, this is one beautiful CD. Kudos to Real Music for their entreaty to not compromise the ability of New Age labels and musicians to make a living by burning copies for friends.

 

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RALPH TOWNER * TIME LINE * ECM 1968

 

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Acoustic guitarist Ralph Towner, 66, had appeared on over 30 albums since 1970. A very selective list of the solo musicians and groups he has worked with includes the Paul Winter Consort, Keith Jarrett, Weather Report, Gary Burton, Jan Garbarek (on a Solstice collaboration with that earned the Deutsche Schallplatten Preis - Germany's equivalent of the Grammy - for best jazz recording of 1976, worldwide), and Oregon (their Ecotopia collaboration received a Deutsche Schallplatten Preis in 1988). Towner's daring music has also accompanied the Alvin Ailey, Pilobolus and Murray Louis dance companies.

Time Line finds Towner in an exploratory mood. While some of the tracks, including Harold Arlen's Come Rain or Come Shine, swing, many of Towner's original compositions find him in a mellow mood. That's not to suggest complacency. Everywhere he journeys into uncharted territory, exploring far out harmonies with an unpretentious genius that defies categorization. You'll have trouble identifying the Arlen tune or George Gershwin's My Man's Gone Now once Towner gets going, his excursions stray so far from the melody line. This is jazz at its esoteric best.

 

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JOHN LEE HOOKER, JR * COLD AS ICE * TELARC CD-83642

 

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The son of legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker has spent the last few decades living the blues rather than singing them. After emerging from drugs, alcohol, divorce, and incarceration to return to music, he quickly garnered a Grammy nomination and awards from the California Music Awards and Bay Area Blues Society. One listen will tell you why major label Telarc just signed him up. In a style that he has called "two parts R&B. one part jazz and "down home blues", John Lee Hooker, Jr. sings 12 songs whose naked autobiographical content (or so it seems) may blow your mind. Hooker speaks more truth than a small arsenal of rappers loaded with self-serving indulgences. The opening track, "You Blew It Baby," and the subsequent "Fed Up" give you some idea of his subject matter. How's this line, "I was trapped like Little Jack Horner, trapped in a corner, couldn't move"? Hooker uses lots of word to tell tales set to melodies similar to those we've heard blues artists sing for many a moon, but his authenticity and humor will keep you glued.


- Jason Victor S
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© Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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