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Category: What I heard

Reviewing La Tanya Hall and the Unison Trio at Bop Stop, 12-20-2019

There’s a moment in every great jazz set where everything falls together, magically, like a platonic ideal of a Tetris game, and the music becomes effortlessly self-generating. That moment came at the midpoint of “Pensativa,” during the first set by vocalist La Tanya Hall and the Unison Trio last night at Cleveland’s Bop Stop.

It’s not like you couldn’t hear it coming (and it wasn’t the high point of the show, but more about that in a moment). Pianist Andy Milne’s solo was sparkling and full of piquant harmonic asides, but when bassist John Hébert walked four and drummer Clarence Penn shifted from an airy but emphatic “Poinciana” beat into classic tipping rhythm, well, the band levitated.

You wouldn’t expect much less with musicians of that reputation and caliber. Hall might not be as well known, but she should be. With poised assurance, she delivered ten songs, nine of them from her excellent new CD, “Say Yes” and a ringer, a lovely, imaginative arrangement of the ancient Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

There was one standard, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” and it was delivered as an encore with hushed concentration. Most of the selections came from jazz, a pair of Monk tunes, “Pannonica” and a sassy “Well You Needn’t” that was enlivened by Penn’s NOLA second-line beat. Hall also seduced the audience with a playful “Jitterbug Waltz” where she and Milne, her husband, played will-they-or-won’t-they with the beat during an extended tag on the words “come on.” And that’s just what it was: a come-on, and a delightful one.

But among Waller, Monk, Clare Fischer, Benny Golson and other luminaries, composer’s pride of place went to Joni Mitchell, whose “The Fiddle and the Drum” received a cinematic reading of quietly devastating power. Milne, who presumably did the arrangement, opened by “bowing” a single piano string while Hébert added spooky arco shudders. Penn’s muffled snare tattoos sounded from the eerie quiet of a battlefield at night. Hall intoned Mitchell’s questioning lyrics with an earnestness touched by sadness and launched a phantasmagoric, PTSD flashback of a piano solo by Milne on the words “and so once again” that only returned to the harmony, like a wounded soldier to consciousness, on the final line.

This was music made by and for adults, unafraid of mastery and aware of its own integrity. It was everyone’s idea of what a jazz vocal performance should be, and it was so much more. Hall teaches at nearby Oberlin and should return just as soon as she and the trio can get some new material together. Rumor has it that the trio without Hall will return to support a spring release of a new record on Sunnyside. Like last evening’s show, it promises musicmaking on an Olympian level.

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Mara Rosenbloom’s Flyways at Mercyhurst University

For years I’ve been jealous of accounts by new York music fans of buzzing from one venue to another, taking in multiple noteworthy performances in the same evening. It’s a little harder to do in flyover country, but not impossible, as Sunday proved.

First up was an afternoon performance by pianist Mara Rosenbloom’s Flyways in Mercyhurst University’s Walker Recital Hall. This band’s signature project has been a setting of the second of Adrienne Rich’s 21 Love Poems, and this 40-minute work comprised the band’s first set. A dreamy evocation of awakening to a lover, the poem is part of a cycle that limns the exertions of a relationship that is not supported by the community.

Flyways, Mara Rosembloom, Sean COnly, Anaïs MavielThat struggle was not audible in the drowsy, pensive washes of Debussy-ian piano that opened the work, nor in vocalist Anaïs Maviel‘s pure, rapt soprano. Maviel unfurled ribbons of sound to open the work, but mallets on her muted drum brought a distant thunderstorm to the bedroom window of the two lovers. Gathering darkness swirled around Rosenbloom’s piano and gathered into a whirling, ostinato figure on the line “I’ve been writing for days.” Accompanied by taps on a singing bowl inverted on Maviel’s drum, the passage vividly described another sort of exertion: the agony of creation.

I’m hardly objective, but the alternating mania and doubt attending to the creative process, seemed to be the point of the poem, and it brought forth Rosenbloom’s most evocative music. The work, which has been recorded for imminent release by Fresh Sound/New Talent, alternated short paragraphs of written music that leapt into improvisation. Moods alternated, too, and as the poem’s thoughts returned to the lover, the clouds cleared and the music, commented on by Sean Conly‘s gentle and supportive bass commentary, dissolved into a reverie, with quiet humming by Maviel.

The final line, “To move openly is not simple,” might have been a statement of intent for Flyways’ music, which was almost shockingly open and intimate. Though the sound was far from jazz, the extraordinary level of communal listening and intuitive response brought the audience to the edge of the  lovers’ bed.

This is bravely uncompromising music, not the kind of stuff we get to hear in Erie, Pennsylvania. It’s also not the sort of mainstream fare that JazzErie usually presents. With perhaps 25 people in the audience, it’s not likely to be heard again, but if a service organization such as JazzErie won’t take this sort of chance, who will? To move openly is not simple.

Anaïs MavielThere was a second set, and it opened with what Rosenbloom described as a premiere of new music the band is working on.  It was a blues-soaked, ostinato-driven piece that blazed as much as the first set shimmered.  Again, the text was by Rich, the third poem from her “Origins and History of Consciousness.” Another interrogation of relationships, this time, a furtive one, the poem gave Maviel a chance to soar with improvisations in her highest register. Conly, subbing for Flyways’ regular bassist, Rahsaan Carter,  plucked strong, woody notes in the intensely rhythmic piece, while the leader’s piano turned out churning rhythmic figures alternating with rhapsodic interludes that invoked the way her teachers, Cooper-Moore and Connie Crothers are alternately rooted in the earth and dreamily evocative.

There was more, but I couldn’t stay to hear it.  I had another concert to make that night, and it was more than a subway ride away.

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Music fans in search of surprises should generally avoid Erie Philharmonic subscription concerts. Transcendent or mediocre, they usually come as advertised.

So, it’s refreshing to report that several wonders were on offer Saturday evening–and no, I don’t mean the inclusion of a work by a living composer (remember “V2 Schneider” last season?). Not that I’m gainsaying the appearance of Christopher Theofanides’ rapt, shimmering “Rainbow Body,” which opened the program.

What was so unexpected was the reception by a Philharmonic audience that treats anything composed after the Brahms Fourth Symphony with deep suspicion. No, there wasn’t a spontaneously hooting wave of approval, but there was none of the tentative hand-patting more suited for the 17th green at Augusta, either.

For this, we must thank music director Daniel Meyer, who not only led a committed and startlingly well-played performance, but had the savvy to tell his audience beforehand what they would hear. This is important, I think, because some audiences need the reassurance of hearing familiar signposts, even in music that is not familiar to them: regular rhythms, a signal return to the tonic, big climaxes that tell you when a piece is over. But more about that last point later.

Now, Theofanides is not Xenakis. His music is tonal and full of ravishing color (my daughter remarked that the music “sounded like Disney music” and I know what she meant). But it’s not made like a Beethoven sonata-allegro, and this, I think, makes some audience members uneasy. Not knowing what to listen for, they feel at sea.

Meyer cleverly and persuasively gave them some direction by briefly explaining the piece’s inspiration: an esoteric bit of Tibetan Buddhist metaphysics (brevity was important here). He then introduced the plainchant, by 12th Century German nun and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, that Theofanides wove into his score. Meyer played the whole thing, and in its own way, Hildegard’s haunting choral work sounded as alien to ears steeped in the Viennese canon as “Rainbow Body” did. But it gave people something to hang on to and to listen for, if only as a sort of musical “Where’s Waldo?” parlor game.

In any case, it worked, and so did the performance. The proof: my daughter, who attended the concert under duress (from me), closed her cell phone and sat up attentively. No greater praise could Meyer and the Phil receive.

The second surprise came when the IATSE guys lugged a small amplifier to the stage for the Rodrigo “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Ana Vidovic is not the first classical guitarist to use an amplifier, and let’s face it, we’ve all heard the Warner’s acoustics swallow up powerful violin soloists. The whispery, intimate classical guitar doesn’t have a chance in there.

Still, the electronics were not expected, though on balance, the sound coming from the amp was modest and not grotesque. It rendered Vidovic’s very clean playing faithfully, though a broad range of colors was not apparent, maybe a function of the sound reinforcement.

This was a performance that was perhaps short of duende, though the cool, somewhat detached aesthetic shared by conductor and soloist had the salutary effect of minimizing the kitsch potential in this now over-familiar music. The famous second movement had a cool, moonlit quality that was a bit jarring at first, but had its own logic. Vidovic’s careful playing and eschewing of splashy emotion drew the ear to her. This might have been a guitar concerto by Stravinsky in his driest neoclassical mode, and even though Meyer used a full complement of strings (another surprise), balances were nicely controlled in all but the biggest tuttis.

Friends of mine, attentive listeners and lovers of Spanish culture, were appalled. I was rather pleased. And may I say that Vidovic looked really sensational in a dramatic, jungle-print gown?

Meyer carried some of his cool into the Tchaikovsky “Pathetique” Symphony that ended the evening. Again, the playing was quite good. And while we’re on that, exactly when did the strings, long the sick man of the Phil’s sections, become the orchestra’s MVPs? Exhibit A: the genuine pianissimo in the opening Adagio that I haven’t heard since . . . well, I don’t recall ever hearing this at a Phil concert. And they achieved the feat more than once, along with being notably unified and (a shaky moment by the celli in the Adagio lamentoso aside) well-tuned.

Big ups, also, to new principal bassoonist Laura Koepke for her sorrowing, eloquent concertante turns. And another surprise: the Phil’s usually off-the-leash brass were relatively under control, though this may not be a virtue in Tchaikovsky (full disclosure: all week I had been listening to Mravinsky’s classic, but highly idiosyncratic recording where the brass snarl, bray and sob with over-the-top emotion).

This was a very purposeful, unsentimental–I’m tempted to say a very Germanic–reading. Those who prefer eye-rolling, bodice-ripping, dark-nights-of-the-Slavic-soul drama would have left unsatisfied. And this is what makes Tchaikovsky such a difficult composer to bring off, despite the arena-rock appeal of all those juicy melodies and danceable rhythms: the emotion is written into the music. How much sauce do you put on a dish such as this before you ruin it?

In the end, Meyer wielded a teaspoon, not a ladle, but the performance was tightly argued and very well-played. He knew exactly what he was doing. Too bad the audience didn’t.

Look, complaining about between-movements applause makes as much sense in Erie as complaining about the weather or the quality of our political leadership, and Lord knows the swaggering march that is the Allegro molto vivace verily screams for a standing-O, but I think Meyer intended to plunge directly into the following Adagio lamentoso. It would have been a neat effect, but the interstitial applause foiled that plan.

Even worse was the moment in the finale when the brass rises to a proclamatory fervor before the main theme returns. Meyer took a bit of a pause there. The audience read this as a customary, all-hands-on-deck climax, and a smattering of premature hand claps were heard. Three minutes later, when the final heavy sighs from the low strings (played with rather chilling control at low volume) came, Meyer dropped his hands and . . . nothing. Even in a piece as familiar as the “Pathetique,” the audience had no idea where the ending was.

See what I mean about those signposts?

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