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.

Fractured Chamber Music

Vinny GoliaMusic for Woodwinds, Strings, Piano, and Percussion (pfMentum, 2017)

golia-woodwinds“Don’t make a mess in my brand new Edgar suit!” is one of the more normal titles in this collection of modern chamber music. One of the less normal titles is “Mr. Pisaro, are all your papers in order? (and his lovely wife too…).”

The psychologically scattered phrases seem like warnings not to take this music too seriously — but it feels like serious music, albeit with a prankster’s touch. Strings set the mood, while composer/bandleader Vinny Golia’s woodwinds furnish the attitude in the form of soloing — sometimes in frenzied free-jazz mode, sometimes with placid flute that could pass for “straight” modern chamber music. Some tracks add piano for elegant depth (“Fish is Fish but that’s another matter”) or artfully jazzy splashes (“Something about a Carnival?”), and Golia occasionally does double duty by adding percussion or sound effects.

My guess is that Golia wrote many, if not all, of these tracks as exercises in improvising over a complicated, through-composed background (although I think the strings get some improv moments as well). On “Edgar suit,” that background is a tense pulsing, egged on by some dissonant piano chords. Here’s a passage where the pulse starts freeing up, and Golia flourishes nicely when the strings glide into a set of unison chords.

In another direction, “‘they look like monkeys, yes!’ (the zeegoes…)” feels steeped in chamber music, with its dense strings and a flute lead that’s mostly choppy and abrasive in this clip, although elsewhere it gets mellifluous and oh-so-chamber-sounding.

The album is part of a chamber-music series Golia is releasing on pfMentum. Syncquistic Linear Expositions and their Geopolitical Outcomes (…we are all still here…) is a standard-looking jazz quartet playing songs with another set of wordy, phase-shifting titles, while Intercommunications matches Golia’s woodwind arsenal with percussion. (pfMentum, 2018).

Masada String Trio


No, I haven’t sampled all of the Book of Angels CDs in John Zorn’s Masada series. Haven’t even come close.

So, despite the players’ pedigrees, I hadn’t yet heard the Masada String Trio.

Then this popped up. Posted to YouTube just last month, it appears to be a French TV broadcast of a live String Trio performance. Greg Cohen on bass, Erik Friedlander on cello, Mark Feldman on violin, and Zorn doing the conducting and grinning ear to ear. There’s some brilliant playing here.

This combination seems dear to Zorn’s heart, because Masada String Trio was granted two entries in the Book of Angels series (wherein each band in succession got to pick from Zorn’s “Masada Book Two” compositions). They also recorded the inaugural CD in Tzadik’s series celebrating Zorn’s 50th birthday in 2003. All of those discs are concerts recorded at the late, lamented Tonic.

Well, why not? Three downtown NYC veterans playing good music at a beyond-expert level — who wouldn’t be game for that? Glad I finally took the time to listen.

Strings in Motian

Joel Harrison String ChoirThe Music of Paul Motian (Sunnyside, 2010)

With Paul Motian’s passing recently, a lot of ink has been devoted — rightly so — to his impact as a drummer. He turned the timekeeper’s role into something elastic, an equal voice in a band — accomplished with the help of Bill Evans and Scott La Faro striving for that same balance.

But what about his composing? Motian led his own bands into his rhythmic world, where the pulse and ring of bebop drumming are subsumed into more of a continuous flow, a gentle outpouring. Guitarist Joel Harrison’s string choir — with violins, viola, cello and two guitars — is devoted to exploring that world.

Harrison’s liner notes include a description of Motian’s music that I like: “more suggestion than declaration.” With that in mind, it’s fitting to have a drumless string band interpreting Motian’s music. The melodies swirl and drift. The music is filled with what critics like to call texture. There are themes for the ear to follow, but you often feel more like you’re being enveloped into the music.

My appreciation of this album deepened even more this week when Harrison posted his remembrance of Motian (Facebook login required). Harrison wanted the String Choir to conjure up Motian’s famous elasticity of rhythm, but it wasn’t easy to replicate. “It turns out what he does is something only he can do!” Harrison writes. The answer was to put “wrong” tempos into the charts, codifying a new sense of time into the music.

The album starts with “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago.”  It’s a track Motian played with his main trio (Bill Frisell on guitar and Joe Lovano on sax), and while it’s got a definite theme, the trio plays it with a disconnected quality, with Motian’s signature minimalism: tiny taps and rustles just hinting at the rhythm. Harrison’s version starts with two wandering electric guitars (not un-Frisell-like) followed by a cello singing out the theme, actually in stronger rhythm than the original. The music overtly speeds up and slows down at points, just the way string quartets and chamber music do, particularly when the theme comes back at the end.

A song that was probably a deeper challenge was “Conception Vessel.” On the original, Keith Jarrett spells out the theme on piano while Motian does something … else … a slow sculpting of drums that sits outside the rhythm and yet doesn’t describe any other rhythm. It’s the drum equivalent of a soloist jumping outside the key signature. The duet continues like that for seven minutes; it’s a gloriously free-form exercise that still doesn’t stray from its original center of gravity.  Plenty of people do it now, but was it so common in 1973? I don’t know.

Harrison’s version is more compact, at just three minutes, and quite lovely. A guitar solo takes up most of the time, with wisps of chords from a second guitar just hinting at the direction of the piece. The intro carves out the theme with a slow, spacious air.

Motian’s music was not all gossamer and clouds. “Drum Music,” both from the String Choir and Motian’s Lost in a Dream album (ECM, 2009), is snappy and angled, even a bit grumpy (and it gives way to some great soloing from Chris Potter on sax and Jason Moran on piano). In the hands of strings, it becomes an agitated modern-classical piece, loads of fun.

“Drum Music,” with extra agitation by Oliver Lake.

Harrison put two non-Motian tracks on the album: Scott La Faro’s “Jade Visions” (played by the Bill Evans Trio) and “Misterioso,” a nod to Motian’s albums devoted to Monk’s music. “Jade Visions” unfolds with florid patience, a Japanese garden after a spring rain. The melody comes at you more directly than on some of Motian’s compositions, and the long string notes let you savor how delicate some of the chords are. “Misterioso” starts with open-ended plucked strings and plays a few timing tricks with the familiar theme, trying out new rhythmic ideas. It’s a treat.

Of course I have to point out a viola solo. On “Cathedral Song,” Mat Maneri solos with just a touch of rawness — just a touch, not enough to disrupt the delicate mood, even when he hit some high-speed phrases. It’s a highlight, and not just because it’s viola.

If you’re craving more thoughts on Motian, jazz writer Peter Hum has collected several musician remembrances at (at The Ottawa Citizen).  Here’s a link to the Matt Wilson entry, a great read.

You can also find links to media coverage at Avant Music News.

And here’s a quick interview with Harrison about the String Choir, and a performance of “It Should Have Happened Long Ago” at The Stone in NYC.

Yoni Kretzmer: Shades of Tim Berne

Yoni Kretzmer’s New Dilemma — s/t (Earsay, 2009)

First, the story. Every now and again, I do a news search for Tim Berne — partly to see if he’s up to something that I don’t know about, but also to find like-minded artists. Berne’s name comes up often when a creatively-minded musician’s influences get listed, and he doesn’t get tossed around as lightly as John Zorn. (Zorn is apt but tends to be a go-to guy for music journalists who aren’t really into this stuff.)

Thus did I find the name of Yoni Kretzmer, an Israeli saxophonist. A search on the Downtown Music Gallery site revealed a CD of Kretzmer’s. On a visit to NYC, I asked about it; DMG had mostly sold out of the copies he’d left them while on tour, but proprietor Bruce Lee Gallanter, who knows the store better than I know my disheveled office, tracked down a stray copy in the back. It was a lucky break, because as with a lot of creative musicians, Kretzmer’s strongest distribution network is his own two feet. DMG wasn’t expecting another shipment any time soon.

Kretzmer is a tenor saxophonist with a flowing, agile style that certainly shares some colors with Berne. You can hear it early on in this CD, with an exciting, darting solo alongside Daniel Feingold’s drums on “2-700,” just the two of them, bright and joyous.

The rest of the band is a string trio: cello, bass — and, yes, viola.   They’re the rhythm section, defining the unusual and very enjoyable sound on the album.

Their parts truly are closer to a jazz rhythm section than a string quartet. Listen to the wandering, upbeat composed line on “2-700,” twisty and pleasant. You could easily picture a downtown NYC band performing with a sax and guitar. It does remind me a bit of Tim Berne’s music.

I don’t mean to make it sound like Kretzmer is a Berne clone. He’s not. It’s just a side effect of the way I discovered the CD. Plus, the artwork reminds me of Steve Byram, Berne’s artist of choice.

Look, here’s a non-Bernian moment: “Drunken Morning,” a flowery composition where the strings take the lead, opening with some elegant cello soloing and a gossamer sax accompaniment. It’s elegant, respectful, and mellow — and yet has an undercurrent of attitude. Little tricks between the cello notes — tiny glissandos or liberties taken with timing — show off a jazzy bent.

If none of this sounds out-there enough for you, “Mess in A” sometimes lives up to its name — in a good way. The track ends up in a space with viola and cello playing a deliciously tense set of chords, the backdrop for Kretzmer’s soloing and some spare but swinging bass comping by Ehud Etun.  “She Knows” starts off with a stark improvisation — slashing strings, wandering sax, quietly rumbling drums. To me, it’s the first track that really captures the stark grayness of the album cover. It gives away to a calm tune that drifts across a slow march rhythm.

I know I just said the strings don’t play like a classical quartet, but some of their best moments come from that kind of precision.  One crescendo in “Harder” includes the viola and cello sawing away at chaotic high notes, but doing so in lock step.

I like Kretzmer’s playing a lot, too. I like his control and his creativity, his attention to melody, and the careful placement of rasping or buzzing notes, just enough to add edge.

He’s playing at Downtown Music Gallery on Oct. 10. If you’re in New York, maybe you can hit him up for some CDs then.

More about this particular CD at All About Jazz.  Kretzmer can be found in a more conventional setting with the quartet Rats, hearable on Myspace and, in samples, at CD Baby.

UPDATE: Well, according to this, Kretzmer has moved to NYC and has a trio album available. So, now you’ve got no excuses.