Yoni Kretzmer’s New New Dilemma

Yoni Kretzmer’s New DilemmaMonths, Weeks and Days (OutNow, 2018)

kretzmer-monthsEight years after I stumbled onto his music, Yoni Kretzmer has again recorded with New Dilemma, the group matching his sax with a string trio. It’s a welcome reunion-of-sorts and, considering the double-CD span of Months, Weeks and Days, a heftier dive into the possibilities for this grouping.

This time, the compositions mostly take the form of longer suites, such as the 19-minute opener, “Sunday Oct. 12th.” The band is also augmented with one more low voice — Josh Sinton on bass clarinet, acting as a foil to Kretzmer and complementing the low-string trio of viola, cello, and bass (Frantz Loriot, Christopher Hoffman, and Pascal Niggenkemper). Flin Van Hemmen rounds out the band on drums.

New Dilemma’s self-titled debut highlighted the compositions and the chamber-music potential of the strings. This second album emphasizes the edge of hard-digging improvisation, with raspy horns and gutty strings. Here’s a span of “Sunday Oct. 12” that features some hard-blazing soloing against composed lines.

“Nov 27th – Dec 1st” is an impressive track that starts with a chamber feel — unison melody as a backdrop to some sublime Kretzmer soloing, fast but restrained, working in a currency of burly knots and tangles. “Friday May 13th” likewise veers into the orbit of traditional chamber music, with its fluttering baroque cello line and floating melodies (and Van Hemmen clattering away with some abandon).

“Tishma” is the only title that isn’t a calendar date, and it’s a departure in another way as well, opening with a creeping overhang built of long tones, with cymbal tapping and Pascal Niggenkemper’s plucked bass breaking the surface tension. The rest is a patient piece built of small sounds.

You can sample parts of Months, Weeks and Days on Bandcamp.

String Quartet as a Weapon

Aizuri QuartetBlueprinting (New Amsterdam, 2018)

aizuri-blueThis one got a lot of superlatives after it was released, and it’s easy to see why. Each piece on Blueprinting was written for the Aizuri Quartet¬†and developed collaboratively between musicians and composer, so the album is well crafted to put forth an Aizuri personality of verve, electricity, and casual attitude. They exhibit the elegance and precision you’d want from a group calling itself a String Quartet, but they feel like a rock band.

The highlight is “Carrot Revolution” by Gabriella Smith, which opens¬†with the sounds of a manic clockwork: chugging, grinding scrapes and stabbing glissandos, like darts of lightning, all manufactured organically with strings and bow. The piece gets melodically sublime but builds tension with rubbery tone waves and a lively pulse, and one sublime moment where chaotic mad scraping halts in unison and shifts into a downright pretty passage. It’s not just the composition; it’s the screaming energy that the players put into it. They even stick the landing (watch cellist Karen Ouzounian in the final seconds):

“LIFT,” by Paul Wiancko, is built around robust furrows of melody, with touches like bow bouncing and offbeat glissandos showing up in the slow second movement. The three-movement piece splits Part III into three further segments: a “Glacial” set of heavy chords, a “Maniacal” phase inspired by a springy square dance, and the brightly dramatic “Lift.”

The title track has the feel of “normal” classical music, being based on the harmonic skeleton of Beethoven’s sixth string quartet (Op. 18, No. 6), but is sprinkled with pranksterisms. Violist Ayane Kozasa gets to play melodica on “RIPEFG,” a piece stuffed with jittery virtuosity. And composer Lembit Beecher adds sound sculptures to “Sophia’s Wide Awake Dreams,” a dreamy piece taken from a chamber opera about a 9-year-old girl, her music box, and her imagination.

Grex: Many-Faceted Rock

GrexElectric Ghost Parade (Geomancy, 2018)

Grex appears at Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th St., San Francisco) on Jan. 23, 2019.

grex-electric-500The art-rock band Grex charms you with upbeat indie-pop melody and then blasts you with psych-driven guitar grit, often in the same song. That mix anchors the band’s personality, honed over years by founders Rei Scampavia and Karl Evangelista, and their steady drummer Robert Lopez. Each album or live show is a workout for multiple brain centers: rock, prog, free jazz, even goofy whimsy.

Scampavia’s airy vocals can make for charming melodic leads. “Martha” is one of the highlights, a sad little tribute to the last of the passenger pigeons. “Mal and Luma” has the slightly silly sound of a kids’ TV theme. Both songs then get a dose of more searing guitar — mournful on the former ebullient on the latter (with some Beatlesesque applause randomly added to contribute to the silliness). “Transpiration” uses guitar blasts in a satisfying power-pop mode before slipping into a tougher psych-rock attack.

That rougher side, with Evangelista’s growly vocals, makes for some satisfying excursions too, with crunchy guitar leading the way on “Husk” and the soulful, pumping riff of “Saints.” Guest horns sometimes add choppy free jazz to the mix, but they also arrive in melodic form, strengthening the rolling pop sounds of “Round Trip” and “Quicksilver.”



Even as any given song flips through disparate ideas, it doesn’t lose its core feeling. Grex knows where it wants to go. There needs to be a place for this kind of pop/rock: music that can smartly flip through many influences to build something exciting.