critic’s pick: david bowie, ‘blackstar’

Blackstar_album_coverHalfway through the nine minute, album-opening title tune to Blackstar, David Bowie briefly steps out of a maze. Up to that point, the song is an icy meditation, an alien chant echoing with electronic chatter and neo-Eastern (or simply otherworldly) yearning. But during a brief refrain, Bowie reverses coarse and lets a ray of pop sunshine beam out of the haze. It’s a tease, of course. But experiencing this momentary but beguiling outburst is akin to hearing Frankie Valli erupt out of a Philip Glass composition. It’s that strange and that fascinating.

Much of Blackstar echoes such a similarly darting and quirky mindset. Released last week on Bowie’s 69th birthday, the record differs considerably from the more elemental and rock directed The Next Day, the singer’s 2013 comeback album after a decade long disappearing act. Blackstar is one of the more abstract but ambient albums Bowie has constructed. Amazingly, it’s also one of his most listenable.

The hubbub surrounding the recording sessions was that the singer had utilized a pack of New York jazz rats, including saxophonist Donny McCaslin (whose credits include Gary Burton, Dave Douglas and Steps Ahead) as his studio band. But Blackstar is no more a jazz record and than it is a rock outing. It echoes the more anti-pop corners of such late ‘70s Bowie classics as Low and Heroes, right down to the guitar whine breezing through the otherwise summery strains of synths, sax and harmonica that close out the album during I Can’t Everything Away that mimics Robert Fripp’s gelatinous ooze on Heroes’ title tune from nearly four decades ago.

In some instances, Blackstar may seem bleak and distant – a scrapbook of sparse soundscapes built around varying rhythms, McCaslin’s myriad sax sounds and Bowie’s often chant-like singing. But the music is continually rhythmic. No matter how spacious, fractured or contained it becomes, a peculiar lyricism remains. You hear it in the slow, desperate arc that hangs over Lazarus and the way McCaslin sounds like a solemn but soulful foil. The rhythm is translated into a more elemental groove during ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, where a sax and drum rampage flesh out a reticent encounter (“she punched me like a dude”) while keyboard orchestration rushes under the frenzy like a cavern river. The purposeful crack and echo in Bowie’s voice during the initial verse of Sue (or in a Season of Crime) sounds like an interplanetary yodel while Dollar Days warms up Blackstar ever so slightly with its piano/sax design and the light resignation of Bowie’s singing.

Still, such peculiar hints of accessibility don’t change the overall wintry spell cast by Blackstar. At once artfully organic but still full of electric abstraction, the music is seemingly icy to the touch but thaws into delicious cool once you invite it in.

(This review was written and filed the day before the announcement of David Bowie’s death on Jan. 10. No revisions were made.)

david bowie, 1947-2016

david bowie.

david bowie.

Few rock performers were so many things to so many different audiences as David Bowie. To many, he was the face of early ‘70s glam-rock and the sexually androgynous imagery that fueled it. But as the decade progressed, Bowie shed images, looks and musical styles with stunning frequency. There was the Thin White Duke that drove the dark rails of one of his finest records, Station to Station (released 40 years ago this month), the pioneering Krautrock stylist, the post disco soul man, blonde popster, industrial rocker, techno banshee and more. At his best, he was combinations of all those personas. And when he put one or more of them onstage, the magic burst forth.

I admit to being stunned when word of Bowie’s death at age 69 spread Monday morning. News reports said he had battled cancer for the last 18 months, but given the reclusive lifestyle he maintained over the past decade, who was to know? How fitting, perhaps, that one of rock’s most outrageously visible artists would spend his final years living a predominantly quiet and undisturbed life in New York.

By wicked coincidence, I spent late Sunday afternoon writing a review of Bowie’s new Blackstar album which was released Friday, the singer’s 69th birthday. It’s a beautifully strange work ideal for winter listening and his second record since retreating from public scrutiny. He had his hands in numerous other projects, including the Off-Broadway production of Lazarus (the title tune of which is one of Blackstar’s prime cuts) and retained a decades-long love for making music videos (he fashioned a wondrously abstract nine minute clip for Blackstar’s title song). But there was no touring and no interaction with any press in recent years. Bowie let his final work roar on its own merits.

Many wonderful memories exist of his music. Bowie played Rupp Arena one time as part of 1987’s Glass Spider Tour. It was a completely over-the-top production promoting one of his weaker albums (Never Let Me Down). But it didn’t matter. It was my first time seeing an artist I had grown up listening to. Sure, the choreography and overall staging embraced kitsch, but there was also the guitar duo of Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar, along with Bowie in fine voice, to ignite tunes popular and obscure, including Loving the Alien, Fashion, Scary Monsters and Fame. In typical Bowie splendor, the show ended with the singer sprouting wings atop the massive stage for his Aladdin Sane gem Time.

His best album? The answer could be as fleeting as what day it is or what mood you’re in. The 1977 Berlin epics Low and Heroes are pretty much unmatched. So was the aforementioned Station to Station, the early Brit pop classic Hunky Dory and the 1978 live set Stage, which featured Kentucky native Adrian Belew on guitar.

I have a huge soft spot for Bowie’s later albums, as well, especially 2002’s Heathen and its incandescent title song, as well as the new Blackstar. But what dominates all these works, along with the entirety of Bowie’s astonishing career, is his unending fearlessness. Bowie took on the kinds of changes in image and style that would destroy most careers as a manner of common practice. But the consistency was always the quality of his work. Whether acting out as a squeamish pop crooner, a glammed up celebrity or a darkly progressive journeyman, Bowie was a rocker of the ages. His loss is huge, but the path of inspiration he paved is considerably greater.

in performance: fabio mittino and bert lams

fabio mittino and bert lams. photo by danny nguyen.

fabio mittino and bert lams. photo by danny nguyen.

One might understandably picture a packed but still very intimate Frankfort coffeehouse as one of the last places to experience the music of the Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff. Then again, Gurdjieff compositions – essentially remembrances and reimaginings of European and Middle Eastern folk and liturgical works – aren’t standard fare anywhere. But as presented last night by Italian guitarist Fabio Mittino and his Belgian-born teacher Bert Lams at the Kentucky Coffeetree Cafe, Gurdjieff’s songs – and those composed by protégé Thomas de Hartmann – were presented as a series of snapshots that represented varying aspects of dance, spiritualism and, quite often, humor.

Making this concert all the more distinct was the fact that Gurdjieff’s music, when it is performed at all, is vanquished to the instrument it was composed for – piano. In the hands of Mittino and Lams, who arranged the music’s deceptively sparse and spacious melodies for guitar, these tunes were folkish miniatures – quiet, reflective bursts of acoustic music that seldom drifted past the three minute mark. As such, the duo packed 19 songs into a set that ran just over an hour. But efficiency proved one the more appealing aspects of this music. Melodies would capture an ancient ambience, a bit of Eastern intrigue or a rich spiritual cast with remarkable accessibility and then vanish.

The show opening Mazurka, for instance, was built around a spring-like melody spearheaded by Mittino that indulged in a delicate, dance-like setting for about 90 seconds and then was done. The Eastern European dance cast of Song of the Fisherwoman and its more mischievous musical cousin Mamasha barely clocked in at a minute in length, yet their senses of expression sounded remarkably complete.

The two broke away from the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann canon only briefly during a quick encore segment. There, Mittino indulged in a quiet but richly harmonic original tune, In the City of K, while Lams reaffirmed his stance as a classical scholar with an unhurried and unassumingly confident reading of Bach’s Prelude from Cellosuite.

The bulk of the program, though, set its compass to a different land altogether, to music of quiet, exotic serenity. What a lovely sound to set against the dead of winter.

gregg allman #1: beyond the brothers

gregg allman.  photo by danny clinch.

gregg allman. photo by danny clinch.

One year ago, almost to the week, Gregg Allman took to the stage at the Grand Opera House in Macon, Ga. for a performance that was both a homecoming and a rediscovery.

Some 45 years earlier, Macon served as the homebase of the mighty Allman Brothers Band, the ensemble that infused blues, Southern soul and jazz-like jamming into a musical genre that became generically known as Southern rock. But with singer/organist Allman having long since established nearby Savannah as his current home, the opportunity to perform again in Macon in 2015 doubled as a chance to re-introduce himself as a solo artist, especially as the legendary band that bore his name had called it a day a year earlier.

The performance resulted in Back to Macon, Ga., a CD/DVD recording that was released in August. The first album since the split of the ABB, Back to Macon retooled several of the group’s more established concert pieces (Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’), a few diamonds from Allman’s solo career (Queen of Hearts, I’m No Angel) as wells as a couple of R&B gems the singer grew up with (Brightest Smile in Town, I’ve Found a Love). But instead of recreating the twin guitar, triple percussion drive of the ABB, the new recording presented Allman as the head of a hearty Southern soul revue with a larger group that included a second keyboardist, a horn section and one ABB holdover, percussionist Marc Quinones.

“It’s very interesting having a larger band,” said Allman, 68. “I’ve got people that are like my teachers. They might be a little bit younger than me, but they are way more accomplished musicians. I just happened to pick the right ones. Everybody gets along beautifully and everybody has got the same goal.”

The latter quality, Allman intimated, was lacking in several of the ABB incarnations.

“It’s different from the Allman Brothers in that the Allman Brothers, after my brother died, never had a leader. Every organization needs a focal point. I mean, if it’s for nothing else, somebody to say ‘start’ and ‘stop.’ I’m just saying that it helps when the leader obtains a little bit of respect from all the rest of the band. That always helps.

“I’ve had a band on the side ever since the Laid Back record (Allman’s 1973 solo debut album). But this is by far the best arrangement of musicians I’ve ever played with.”

The other “brother” Allman referenced was older sibling Duane Allman, the groundbreaking slide guitarist who founded the ABB in 1969 only to die in a 1971 motorcycle accident just as the group was achieving stardom.

Did the elder Allman’s long absence from stewardship of the ABB contribute to the group’s seemingly final dissolve (the band also split for extended periods in 1976 and 1982) in late 2014?

“Let’s just say there were just too many head chefs in the kitchen.”

What Back to Macon also affirms is the emergence of a stronger, healthier Allman. A veteran of one of the more publicly excessive rock star lifestyles of the 1970s, Allman was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 2007 and underwent a liver transplant in 2010. He has battled numerous ailments through the years, including respiratory infections.

“I still have my days, but for the most part I feel really good. I say prayers of thanks every day. I’m a very blessed and fortunate person, I really am. So far, I’ve had a beautiful life.”

Gregg Allman performs at 8 tonight at the Newlin Hall, Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. The concert is sold out.

Tickets go on sale Jan. 15 for Allman’s 7:30 p.m. performance on April 6. For info, go to The Musical Box will post more of its interview with Allman a few days prior to that concert.

guitars and gurdjieff

fabio mittino and bert lams. photo by danny nguywn.

fabio mittino and bert lams. photo by danny nguywn.

Grab your passports, folks, we’re going on a trip. Well, not in the literal sense, perhaps. But the international pathways to be explored in Friday’s guitar duo performance at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café in Frankfort by Bert Lams and Fabio Mittino nonetheless constitute an overseas journey of sorts.

Here’s the travelogue checklist. Lams, one-third of the popular California Guitar Trio, hails from Belgium. His performance partner for a brief winter tour is a former student, Italian-born guitarist Mittino. Their favored repertoire tonight, which also fortifies their fine new Long Ago album, will be the works of Russian/Armenian composer/philosopher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and his Russian/Ukranian protégé Thomas Alexandrovich de Hartmann.

Oh, yes, did we mention Lams and Fittino met in England while studying with British guitarist/King Crimson chieftain Robert Fripp? Those are the destinations that begin Friday in Frankfort.

“Robert suggested that Fabio take some guitar lessons with me,” Lams recalled of his initial meeting with Mittino. “This was 20 years ago. Fabio is a lot younger than I am. He was really a kid then who travelled all the way from Milan twice or three times to take some lessons. Then we started playing together and gradually became friends.”

The music of Long Ago evokes exactly what its title suggests. Gurdjieff gathered melodies during travels through the Middle East, Far East and Africa. Often with de Hartmann’s assistance, the music was fashioned into pieces for piano. Initial exposure in North America to the resulting compositions came through artists like pianist Keith Jarrett. But Long Ago represents the first time Gurdjieff’s work has been so extensively transcribed for, and subsequently performed on, guitar.

“Most of this music came from what Gurdjieff heard during his early travels,” Lams said. “Gurdjieff’s father was a professional storyteller, so he was steeped in this oral tradition. He seemed to remember most of these melodies that he heard a long time ago. But he needed someone like de Hartmann to translate it, because Gurdjieff couldn’t really play very much. He could sing a little bit, play guitar with one finger and play a little bit on the harmonium, but he wasn’t a totally accomplished piano player or anything. It was de Hartmann who really brought that to us.”

For Milan native Mittino, an early fascination with Gurdjeff paralleled with the discovery of The Bridge Between, a 1993 album by the Robert Fripp String Quartet. That band was a progressively minded joint venture between the then-newly formed California Guitar Trio and two members (Fripp and stick player Trey Gunn) of the soon-to-be-relaunched King Crimson.

“I was studying with a classical teacher at the conservatory in Milan, but when I heard that CD by the Robert Fripp String Quartet, it just blew my mind,” Mittano said. “I thought, ‘Okay, I want to absorb and learn this language.’ I knew in order to do that, I had to go to the source. That was how I met Bert.

“The same thing happened with Gurdjieff. I heard this piano piece (Allegretto, which is featured on Long Ago) and it became one of my favourites. So I wanted to learn how to play this music. I discovered nobody transcribed it for guitar, so that was the beginning of my work on that music.”

There is a delicate intimacy to the Hindu, Kurdish and Armenian mazurkas, dances and folk tunes Gurdjieff and de Hartmann appropriated for the music that makes up Long Ago. While one can still sense the lyricism piano would lend to these works, the expression the tunes yield in a guitar duo setting becomes rich and often harmonious.

“The reason we play this music is simply because it spoke to us,” Lams said. “But we also like doing something that has never been done before. The guitar brings to this music a sort of new life because until now it has mostly been played on the piano. The piano is a beautiful instrument, but it has a very authoritative sound. When you play some of this music on the guitar, it has a much more intimate sound. Most people come to me after a show and say they were moved by it. They were touched by it. I think the guitar can do that in a different way.

“Still, there is something in this music, regardless of what instrument you play it on, that needs discovering. For us, it feels like we discover something new every night in front of the audience. It’s very exciting.”

Bert Lams and Fabio Mittino perform at 8 p.m. Jan. 8 at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, 235 W. Broadway in Frankfort. $20. 502-875-3000. For ticket info, go to

critic’s pick 317: king crimson, ‘thrak – 40th anniversary edition

thrakThe wheezy melancholy that kicked open Thrak upon its release in 1995 couldn’t have sounded less like King Crimson. It began like a string quartet playing on a cranked up Victrola but with a sort of easy animation that made the serenade sound like the soundtrack to a 1940s radio drama.

Then the avalanche hit. Two guitarists, two drummers and, in effect, two basses roared to life with an accelerated melody than alternated between thunderous, almost danceable rhythm and a chiming refrain that reached to a more ambient level of prog-related bliss. The resulting title of this album-opening detonation tune couldn’t have been more succinctly apt: VROOOM.

A newly remastered Thrak comes to us as one of the first official album releases of 2016. But don’t get too hung up on dates. Though just over 20 years old, the original Thrak brought King Crimson to life again after a decade-long hiatus. This new edition, boasting a wildly crisp stereo mix by Jakko Jakszyk (co-guitarist and vocalist of the current Crimson incarnation) and Robert Fripp (guitarist, founder, chieftain and the only mainstay member of the band’s many lineups) as well as several DVD audio impressions (including a 5.1 Surround Sound mix I got to hear over the holidays that is truly imposing in its clarity), comes with the subtitle of 40th Anniversary Edition. That refers to Crimson’s inception in 1969. The reissue series that began with the milestone anniversary of that event still remains several recordings short of completion.

What is important, though, is getting a chance to hear Thrak again with fresh ears and a several hearty tweaks. It’s an album full of glorious racket that brought together Crimson’s full 1980s lineup – Fripp, drummer Bill Bruford (a holdover from the band’s early ‘70s roster), bassist Tony Levin and Northern Kentucky native Adrian Belew as a second guitar piledriver – with a pair of players Fripp had more recently collaborated with – former Mr. Mister drummer Pat Mastellotto and stick player Trey Gunn.

What resulted was perhaps the most musically diversified record in the Crimson canon. VROOOM and its hot-wired reprise piece VROOOM VROOOM recalled the power chord strut of such earlier Crimson epics as Red while the title tune let Bruford and Mastellotto loose on a furiously exact percussion rumble. Then there was Belew, who offered a pair of gorgeous neo-ballads (One Time and Walking on Air) that blended his flair for Beatle-esque reflection and Fripp’s guitar ambience. Topping it all was Dinosaur, a giddy Belew-led rampage that groved with youthful vitality even as its lyrics mocked Crimson’s weighty legacy (“I’m a dinosaur, somebody is digging my bones”).

Thrak sounded great then and roars with even more beastly clarity in this retooled and ultimately ageless-sounding edition.

in performance: lexington philharmonic with the brubeck brothers quartet

the brubeck brothers quartet: dan brubeck, mike demicco, chuck lamb and chris brubeck.

the brubeck brothers quartet: dan brubeck, mike demicco, chuck lamb and chris brubeck.

There were certainly tip-offs last night at the Opera House that the Lexington Philharmonic and conductor Scott Terrell were preparing to operate, in terms of style and repertoire, from a different base than usual. The first sign was the greeting that announced showtime – a lone trombone playing the melody line to the Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond staple Take Five. The other was instrumentation assembled across the front of the stage. It belonged not to any classically derived guest soloists but to a jazz combo that would largely dictate the music to come.

What played out was an immensely enjoyable New Year’s Eve collaboration between the Philharmonic and the Brubeck Brothers Quartet. The latter was led by Chris and Dan Brubeck, two of the four sons of legendary father Dave, who had performed on this very Opera House stage two decades earlier.

Admittedly, being family to an artistic titan is hardly recommendation enough for anything other than a simple performance tribute. But the younger Brubecks also clocked many years on the road and in the studio with their esteemed father, so their artistic investment in his music has been considerable. As such, their claim as heirs to his compositions, and especially his mischievous implementation of time signatures, isn’t only justifiable, it’s a creative impetus to find new arrangements and possibilities for what can largely be termed Brubeck Music.

That was the cheerful gist of the concert, which delved into late career Brubeck works like The Basie Band is Back in Town (with a Chris Brubeck arrangement that favored Kansas City swing over his dad’s artful turns) as well as the richly percussive patterns of Jazzanians. Both showcased Dan Brubeck’s ultra tasteful drive on drums, a propulsion that modestly piloted most of the concert as much through clean, efficient fills during group and orchestral displays as through his solos.

The second set favored more established Brubeck fare, beginning with an animated Unsquare Dance. Chris Brubeck’s arrangement made the Philharmonic strings, along with his own efficient playing on fretless electric bass (he also performed, intermittingly, on trombone), willing accomplices to the tune’s improbable 7/4 time signature. The lyrics penned for the work were less engaging, although the command in the second verse to “asymmetrically swing your partner” was a hoot.

The extended Brandenburg Gate Revisited, the most orchestral Brubeck composition of the evening (the others were mostly retooled quartet works), brought out the best in the Philharmonic as it shifted from third stream variations to intervals of combo swing. Equally engaging was the dramatic role the orchestra played in bolstering the wildly playful melodic skirmishes within Blue Rondo a la Turk.

In its most elemental and engaging moment, though, the performance came down to an unaccompanied exchange between the brothers during a 12 minute revamping of Take Five. For a few brief moments, what was at work was a two man rhythm section of electric bass and drums glorifying the groove without any hint pretense or over-embellishment. It’s a good bet father Brubeck would have gotten a charge out of it.

bonus tracks: the brubeck brothers quartet

two generations of brubeck: sons chris (left) and dan (right) with father dave (center).

two generations of brubeck: sons chris (left) and dan (right) with father dave (center).

Our preview piece on tonight’s performance by the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and the Lexington Philharmonic had to exclude, for reasons of length, a wonderful remembrance by Chris Brubeck of when his famous father, jazz titan Dave Brubeck, was inducted into the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009. As this year’s Honors ceremony was telecast earlier this week, we thought we would share Chris’ story of how the four Brubeck sons kept their performance at the telecast a secret from their dad until show time.

“Oh my God, we went to such amazing lengths for him to not know we were going to be there. For example, when my wife and I rode with my sister all the way from Connecticut to Washington, we didn’t even let my sister know that we were going to be doing it. And two of my brothers were actually hiding in different hotels in Washington so they couldn’t possibly run into my dad.

“My brother Darius and I… our dad knew we were in Washington because of a different ceremony that we were invited to. But dad also knew that the people getting the Kennedy Center Honors don’t get to play at the ceremony. It’s all done as a tribute. He said, ‘Oh, I’d sure love it if my sons would be the people that would play to honor me.’ The producers said, ‘We’re sorry, we really can’t do that. We’re going in a different direction.’

“The different direction was this incredible all-star band with Christian McBride and Bill Charlap and Bill Stewart, Miguel Zenon – all these great guys. And Herbie Hancock was in there. It was just unbelievable. But even live, my brothers and I were hidden behind this piece of scenery onstage. So our dad really, really had no idea we were also going to be there until we began playing.

“The producers always want to have what they call the ‘gotcha’ moment, emotionally, from the recipients. They want to catch that on camera. They told me that was one of their very favorite all-star takes of that moment. It was just so great. At the time, I thought that was probably the pinnacle of my dad’s life, the culmination of the whole mission our family has been working in during his lifetime, and it turned out to be true. He only played a few more years after that.”

brubeck time

chris and dan brubeck.

chris and dan brubeck.

Peruse the list of artists Chris Brubeck has composed music for and you will discover names that span generations and styles alike.

There is the concerto he wrote for a trio of genre-specific violinists (classical virtuoso Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, jazz stylist Regina Carter and Irish-American fiddler Eileen Ivers), a quintet piece recorded with the heralded woodwind ensemble Imani Winds and a work for the Americana-friendly trio Time for Three performed this fall with the Lexington Philharmonic.

While all of that has established the multi-instrumentalist as a premiere composer, arranger and performer, there is a name his most formidable musical talents always seem to answer to – his own. That’s because Brubeck is the son of jazz icon Dave Brubeck, the pianist whose inventive use of time signatures was the basis of a far-reaching career that spanned over 60 years. But the father-son relationship was also a professional one. Chris and brother/drummer Dan Brubeck were regular bandmates of their father beginning in the ‘70s, playing together at the inaugural concert of the University of Kentucky’s Spotlight Jazz Series in 1978. So it’s of little surprise the music the siblings will perform for a New Year’s Eve concert tonight with the Philharmonic will focus less on Chris’s compositions and more on the music penned and popularized by father Dave.

“Part of the reason I have the courage and insanity to do what I do is because I grew up listening to my father do it,” Chris said. “My dad and Leonard Bernstein were some of the first guys in the jazz world and the classical world to try to put things onstage together and to try to work together. Since I grew up in a household where I saw it happen, it didn’t seem like a totally impossible thing for me.

“So my brother Dan and I really enjoy playing this music along with (guitarist) Mike DeMicco and (pianist) Chuck Lamb. We’ve played with quite a few orchestras over the years, some as far flung as the Russian National Symphony Orchestra in Moscow. We played a sold out performance at Tchaikovsky Hall, and that was really thrilling – to think, ‘Wow, we’re on the other side of the world and they have Dave Brubeck fans there.’ So to be able to play that music and bring the same basic mission, which is to have really cool music and then improvise on top of it, through, up and around it, is really great. That’s what we’re going to be doing on New Year’s Eve, too.”

While Dave Brubeck was best known for combo hits like Take Five (a composition by Brubeck Quartet saxophonist Paul Desmond), Blue Rondo a la Turk and Unsquare Dance, he composed numerous works for orchestra. One of his most prominent orchestral pieces, Brandenburg Gate (featured on Brubeck Quartet albums in 1958 and 1963) is scheduled to be part of the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve program.

“It’s one of those seminal pieces,” Chris said of Brandenburg Gate. “Frankly, people in the audience probably will not have heard it or will have compared it to Blue Rondo a la Turk or Take Five. But it gets a good reaction. It’s rather Bach-like and has room for improvisation. It’s really just a theme with variations.

“I’m always reminded of how important this was at the time in terms of where my dad wanted to go with his music. He used to get really nervous playing with orchestras. My dad used to be so nervous that he wouldn’t announce things to the audience or introduce guys in his band. It’s funny, because if you saw him later on in his life, he got much, much looser. Some nights, he would have what I call the Will Rogers Syndrome, where he would just have this funny face when he was talking and it was really hilarious. It was like seeing a standup comedian who would play piano. It’s hard to believe that he could have been so completely uptight about it when he started.

“I’ve played with orchestras with my father for probably 40 years. There used to be this feeling of unwelcome-ness when we would show up to play with some of them. A lot of old European-schooled immigrants thought mixing these two genres of music was a sin, although my dad would always try to remind the classical musicians, ‘Hey, remember that the greatest improvisers of the time were Bach and Mozart.’ Going to see Mozart play then would probably be like going to see Chick Corea play today. You have that same kind of thrill.”

The Lexington Philharmonic with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets: $25-$155. Call 859-233-4226 or go to

critic’s pick 306: john abercrombie, ‘the first quartet’

john abercrombieThere is an assessment within the bio materials accompanying John Abercrombie’s The First Quartet that the three vintage albums making up the box set stand as “seminal documents” in the development of the guitarist’s abilities as a bandleader. If anything, “seminal” is an understatement in this music’s resurfacing.

Cut in rapid succession between 1978 and 1980, the trio of recordings making up The First Quartet certainly chronicle Abercrombie’s rise from a solo and collaborative performer for ECM, the Munich-based label that came to define a heavily impressionistic slant on what was then contemporary jazz (the package is the latest in the label’s Old and New Masters series). The band Abercrombie assembled came initially from established affiliations with bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald. Later came the addition of esteemed pianist Richie Beirach, who the guitarist met upon moving to New York.

But The First Quartet also serves an extraordinary dual purpose. First, for those unfamiliar with Abercrombie or even to the ECM sound as it existed 35-plus years ago, this set is an ideal primer. The musicianship’s overall scope is light and lyrical but spacious in a way that unites elements of fusion and even chamber music. Upon first listen, Abercrombie’s guitar tone is atmospheric enough to recall Pat Metheny’s early records. The comparison is further underscored by the way Abercrombie locks into ballet-like exchanges with Beirach (whose ECM records as a leader are equally deserving of an Old and New Masters treatment) and the way the latter, in turn, buoys his more melodic phrasing to the rhythm section. But where Metheny (who also recorded for ECM at the time) was more fusion based, this music from Abercrombie shifted between echoes of bop and rich yet lightly accented ensemble orchestration.

The other big achievement of The First Quartet will appeal to longtime Abercrombie fans. None of the set’s recordings – Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1980) and M (1981) – have previously received a domestic release on compact disc (Arcade was available briefly as a Japanese import). They have been out of print completely for years, so hearing them again on CD is a bit of an occasion.

None of the music sounds at all dated– a testament to ECM founder Manfred Eicher’s crystalline production as well as to the entire design of the compositions, from the mysterious bounce on Arcade’s title tune to the light but restless swing of Stray (from Abercrombie Quartet) to Beirach’s gorgeously plaintive set up for Abercrombie’s darting guitar chatter on the M finale song Pebbles.

It all makes The First Quartet an enticing welcome to novice fans as well as a series of brilliant missing chapters for diehards. Either way, the music it contains is nothing short of enchanting.

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