Archive for January, 2013

variety in the new century

Nadja-Salerno-Sonnenberg. Photo by Christian Steiner.

If you were the proverbial fly on the wall in the home of a young Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, you might not hear – at least, not initially – the sounds that led to her reputation as one of the world’s foremost classical violinists and chamber musicians. But you would likely sense the stylistic variety that is generously reflected in the repertoires she helps design today with the New Century Chamber Orchestra.

“When I was young, you would not believe the variety of music going on in my house in the same day. You would be hearing opera. You would be hearing me practicing classical violin. You would be hearing Neapolitan folk songs. And you would be hearing Led Zeppelin. All of this was going on in my house. This is the way I grew up, so I had all of that in my ear already. I just incorporated it into my solo career and, certainly, I brought what I know to the orchestra.

“When I was young, I started as a soloist and continued to be a soloist in a strictly classical realm. But I eventually expanded my horizons and began to think differently and play differently from the bread-and-butter classical concertos. So, yes, variety has always been a part of my life.”

The stylistic reach the Italian-born Salerno-Sonnenberg intends as Music Director of the conductor-less, San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra is perhaps best showcased in their 2009 album Together. It boasts Romanian folk dances by Bela Bartok, the brilliant Argentine tango music of Astor Piazzolla, George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess classic Bess, You Is My Woman Now and the premiere of a new chamber piece by Clarice Assad.

“I refuse to be labeled in any kind of way as far as repertoire” Salerno-Sonnenberg said. “It’s easy to say an orchestra specializes in contemporary music or specializes in baroque music. This is an orchestra that specializes in everything. And because of my programming choices, the repertoire that we play is absolutely A to Z. And I love that. We just keep growing and growing and growing, logistically speaking, to where the orchestra is so highly regarded, to where the playing is just so stellar and, these days, constant.

“It’s like being a parent in many senses, because what you want to do is get your child to a point where they are independent. Then you feel that you might have done your job. To make a career is difficult. To sustain it is more difficult. If this in an orchestra that tours, if this is an orchestra that records, if this is an orchestra that has a huge radio presence, if this is an orchestra which is highly regarded, then the challenge remains to keep that status. And that’s what we have accomplished.”

One of the priorities the violinist emphasized during her five season association with the orchestra has been a Featured Composer residency that brings existing and commissioned works of a composer into its seasonal repertoire. For its current winter tour, Salerno-Sonnenberg relies on the help of two previous Featured Composers – Assad, who arranged the Aria from Hector Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brazilieras No. 5, and the Pulitzer Prize/Grammy-winning William Bolcom, whose Romanza for Solo Violin and String Orchestra will spotlight Salerno-Sonnenberg as soloist.

“Clarice was our first season’s Featured Composer. And this is an enormous talent. She is just an extraordinary composer and, I think, probably, the greatest living arranger around today. For our third season, she actually made an arrangement for string orchestra, percussion and piano of Pictures at an Exhibition. Can you possibly imagine that? A string orchestra playing Pictures at an Exhibition is ridiculous. But it worked because we had the extreme talent of that young lady. But that’s what I gravitate towards – that sky’s-the-limit kind of thinking.

“As for Bill Bolcom, here is a man that can write an oratorio and an opera and then a cabaret song. He’s very much like Bernstein in that sense. His style is not relegated to one type of writing. So the concerto itself encompasses that. None of the three movements sound anything like the previous one, and I love that about Bill’s music. He is a typical example of what sits well and naturally with me.”

Also on tonight’s program will be Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings, which is also featured on the orchestra’s 2010 concert recording, Live.

“It all started with my solo career, which remains my essence,” Salerno-Sonnenberg said. “Now I’ve had this orchestra for five years, which is such an enormous part of my life. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not working in some capacity for the orchestra. And I have my label (NSS Music, which released Together and Live). Then there is all the regular stuff that everybody has to do. So to be able to juggle it all, I think, keeps me young. And it’s all very gratifying, especially when you see such positive results.”

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra perform at 8 p.m. Jan.18 at the Norton Center for the Arts Newlin Hall, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $28-$55. Call (877) 448-7469 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

critic’s pick 262: lindsey buckingham, ‘one man show’ ; mike cooley, ‘the fool on every corner’

What we have here are two realities of the digital age – a pair of splendidly recorded solo acoustic works by singer-songsmith-guitarists known far more for their work as members of cherished rock troupes than for music issued under their own names. Both are available almost exclusively as downloads.

The first is Lindsey Buckingham’s One Man Show, a near exact replica, right down to the between song banter, of the program the Fleetwood Mac frontman gave at the Opera House in November. Regardless of such a steadfast repertoire, this is a blistering set mostly because Buckingham obliterates the concept of what a solo acoustic concert can be.

One Man Show is not some folkie reinvention of Buckingham’s music in and out of Fleetwood Mac. It is rather what its title implies – an unaccompanied rock parade that just happens to acoustic. From Buckingham’s ageless vocal howl to guitarwork that exerts itself with dizzying exactness, the record is steeped in frenzy.

It doesn’t matter if the music stews in the brooding intensity of Go Insane, Never Going Back Again and So Afraid or boils over with the hopped up drive of Big Love, where the guitar runs sound positively caffeinated. Either way, Buckingham presents One Man Show as a restless joyride.

While Big Mac faves make up roughly half the album, Buckingham fleshes out the remainder with some genuine surprises. From the early ‘70s comes the pre-Fleetwood Mac instrumental Stephanie, One Man Show’s lone statement of solace. But the real treats comes by way of three tunes from Buckingham’s underrated 2007 solo album, Under the Skin, highlighted by the bittersweet departure meditation Cast Away Dreams.

As of now, One Man Show is only available through iTunes.

Mike Cooley’s The Fool on Every Corner is an altogether calmer beast. As one of the two primary vocalist/guitarists for Drive-By Truckers, Cooley has helped provide a new generational voice for Southern rock ‘n’ roll. But unlike Truckers co-chieftain Patterson Hood, who regularly tours and records on his own, Cooley is relatively new when it comes to performance life outside the band.

As such, The Fool on Every Corner is a relaxed and slightly boozy compendium of songs Cooley has penned for the Truckers along with one new entry, Drinking Coke and Eating Ice. The resulting record is pulled from solo concerts given last year in Atlanta.

Bolstered by Truckers faves 3 Dimes Down, Where the Devil Don’t Stay and Shut Up and Get on the Plane, the album bares its barroom spirit readily with a loose, often whispery performance feel that sounds like vintage Willie Nelson, but with a darker, more rural slant.

The Fool on Every Corner has available through all major digital music outlets since December and has just been issued on vinyl and CD.

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Critic’s pick 261: Joe Lovano, ‘Cross Culture’

One can only suppose in listening to Cross Culture, the splendid third album by Joe Lovano’s Us Five ensemble, that the saxophonist thinks little of familiarity.

As perhaps the most visible straight-ahead jazz artist on the historic Blue Note label – an alliance that dates back more than two decades – Lovano would be justified in thinking that those tuned into his music would have come to know his sound. It is huge and commanding when voiced on tenor saxophone, more playful and meditative when delivered on soprano, and largely out of all predictable scopes when sent through the double-base reed contraption known as the aulochrome.

Yet within the first few moments of Blessings in May, Cross Culture’s delicious opening tune, Lovano gives us a crash course on why he is one this generation’s craftiest jazz stylists. His tenor kicks in from the first beat, provided you can pinpoint where the beat is within Us Five’s novel double drum makeup. But the tenor tone is rich, animated and effortless, rising from a soulful, boppish bounce into a righteous squeal. Never heard Lovano’s grand music before? Consider this tune a bright, life-size invitation.

From there, Cross Culture delivers the goods on three levels. It covers nearly all of the other stylistic trademarks of Lovano’s playing, embraces the tricky rhythmic maneuvers that the Us Five is known for and then expands upon that sound even as it looks to the past. And in many cases, all three are explored simultaneously.

On Journey Within, Lovano feels back layers of the Us Five sound for a tune that boasts the same spacious ambience as the long-running bassless trio Lovano performed in with guitarist Bill Frisell and the late drummer Paul Motian. Here, Blue Note labelmate Lionel Loueke co-opts Frisell’s wiry, wispy guitar voice, and the Us Five drum duo of Otis Brown and Francisco Mela picks up on Lovano’s atmospheric groove. It’s a testament to Motian’s ingenuity that it takes two skilled drummers to stand in for him.

The bass rushes back into place on Golden Horn, with employs two bassists – Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding and Us Five newcomer Peter Slavov, who gloriously play off of the double drum team’s percussion accents. After pianist James Weidman enters to anchor the groove, Lovano lightens the mood on the clarinet-like tarogato. Outside of this tune, Spalding and Slavov split bass duties throughout Cross Culture.

Royal Roost grounds the ensemble sound in light bop swing to recall Blue Note’s glory years of the ’50s and ’60s. But the killer is PM, a direct and loving tribute to the great Motian centered around masterful interplay between Lovano and the drummers.

There you have it, jazzers. We’re only a week into the new year and the bar for 2013 has already been set.

Mike Auldridge, 1938-2012

Mike Auldridge.

All the holiday pageantry surrounding the arrival of 2013 tended to overshadow the under-the-radar exits of several under-appreciated musical ambassadors during the final days of 2012.

Among them was Ray Collins, co-founder of the Mothers of Invention with Frank Zappa. Collins was the principal vocalist on the band’s first two albums. He died Christmas Eve. Obituaries listed his age only as “middle 70s.”

Then on Dec. 26, we lost Fontella Bass, the St. Louis pop-soul diva behind the huge 1965 hit Rescue Me. By the ’70s, Bass turned to jazz by recording with her husband, the great trumpeter Lester Bowie, and his band, the groundbreaking Art Ensemble of Chicago. She embraced gospel in the ’90s and even moonlighted with the British electronica ensemble Cinematic Orchestra in 2002. Bass was 72.

But the loss that probably hit home the hardest was the Dec. 29 passing of Mike Auldridge.

Anyone with a serious love for bluegrass music likely grew up or grew old listening to the clean and surprisingly progressive musicianship that Auldridge conjured from the dobro. Josh Graves can be credited for forging a lasting place for the slide-played resonator guitar in bluegrass, and certainly Jerry Douglas can be viewed as the instrument’s foremost innovator today. But between the two was Auldridge.

Although he was well versed in pre-bluegrass country styles, Auldridge is best known for the genre-busting music he produced with The Seldom Scene, which he co-founded in 1971. Auldridge cut a few fine but hard-to-find solo albums and branched out in the latter part of his career to collaborate with Lyle Lovett and the contemporary string band Chesapeake. But to appreciate the full technical scope of his playing, and his ability to use it within a more folk-informed repertoire, check out any of the first five Seldom Scene albums, culminating with the outstanding 1975 concert recording Live at the Cellar Door.

Auldridge was 73.

In performance: Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay.

There are few greater exhibitions of pop music contrast than a Nellie McKay show. Similarly, Friday night’s unaccompanied return concert at Natasha’s offered a perhaps ideal way of examining (and enjoying) the opposing styles, themes and performance strategies behind her songs.

For starters, McKay possessed the vocabulary and confidence of New York’s finest cabaret singers. On Friday night, those qualities revealed themselves in sterling readings of compositions by such disparate greats at Fats Waller, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Shel Silverstein and The Beatles. Topping the list of favored stylists, though, was Doris Day.

A brilliant case in point was a stark reading of Jobim’s Meditation, based far more on Day’s worldly but wide-eyed American version than the composer’s Brazilian-swept original. Like so many of the tunes offered during the 80-minute show, McKay’s affection for the Day sound was remarkably complete. Her singing was stately at times, coy at others and surprisingly vulnerable-sounding during the more sensitive passages.

But vulnerable was about the last tag that applied to McKay’s original material, whether it was the animated canine love offering The Dog Song (“that’s what it’s all a-bow-wow-out”), the wildly tongue-in-cheek referendum in sexual politics that fueled It’s a Pose (“Honey, your arrogance is what makes you special”) or the hysterical right-wing view of feminism at the heart of Mother of Pearl (“I’m Michelle Bachman and I approved this message”).

Musically, the show seemed almost contradictory at times. McKay’s fingers were more than up for the swing-style piano joyride of the ’20s-era classic Crazy Rhythm. But twice during the program, after she switched to ukulele, McKay became flustered enough to abort songs. There were no obvious technical gaffes. Instead, the singer simply appeared deflated and disconnected. Those moments were brief, though, and the recoveries were immediate.

There was certainly no disconnect in the show-closing encore of Dave Frishberg’s Listen Here, a personal affirmation prefaced by a New Year’s toast. The song’s sense of celebration seemed modest by design. But in McKay’s hands, it grew like a winter flame – a contained, beckoning flash of color and warmth.

Critic’s pick 261: Buddy Guy, ‘Live at Legends’

“Don’t say nothing,” Buddy Guy whispers after the onset of his thundering new concert recording Live at Legends. “I’m not through yet.”

The line isn’t some whimsical command or even an aside. It is essentially a cue. As anyone who has witnessed him in performance will tell you, Buddy Guy’s fingers – fleeting as they are on these jewels cut at his Legends club in Chicago – seldom keep up with the ideas he conjures. So the iconic guitarist’s remark means a change is dead ahead. Sure enough, the rockish jolt of Best Damn Fool comes to a sudden and premature stop and is replaced in an instant by the testifying groove of the Muddy Waters staple Mannish Boy.

Guy has pulled this trick onstage for ages. You hear it on Live at Legends as he gives us a walking, talking history of the American inspirations that fueled the late-’60s British blues boom. For instance, a snippet of John Lee Hooker’s classic shuffle Boom Boom is cut short for a brief, quiet and powerfully suppressed serving of Cream’s Strange Brew. Then Guy is off and running into Jimi Hendrix territory, transforming Voodoo Chile into a slab of sweaty funk. But Guy doesn’t get to sing as much as a verse of the song before the music steers back onto Cream turf for the familiar riff to Sunshine of Your Love.

The whole joyride takes a little more than six minutes. That’s Guy for you. One of the few blues legends to live long enough to benefit from the adoration and influence he has given to successive generations of players, the guitarist doesn’t waste time – his or yours. Luckily, though, Live at Legends also awards us with a healthy blast of the amped-up intensity found in his own tunes.

“Now here’s the way Buddy Guy sounds,” the guitarist states before diving into Damn Right I Got the Blues, the song that basically reintroduced him to a new generation of fans two decades ago. But even here there is a paradox. As with the nine-minute version of Willie Dixon’s I Just Want to Make Love to You that precedes it, Damn Right doesn’t present the blues is any conventional design. Instead, both tunes are served as huge, rockish torrents. It’s in keeping with a stylistic mesh that Guy perfected some 45 years ago. And on Live at Legends, the blend sounds as vital and immediate as ever. But credit that as much to the gospel-driven vigor of Guy’s singing as his guitar work.

Three new studio tunes, highlighted by the solemn barrelhouse blues of Country Boy, conclude the record. But Live at Legends is at its finest when the ageless abandon of Guy’s concert sound, scattered as it sometimes gets, is given room to roar.

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