Tuesday, October 27, 2009

First Cut

November approaches—a point driven home by the enormous, air-filled pumpkin on my neighbour's lawn—so it's time to look back over the 600 or so CDs that have found their way to me this past year and try to winnow them down to a short list of Top 10 candidates. To make this process easier, I highlight recordings that have struck me throughout the year. I don't keep a running total, though, so I'm never sure how many will be waiting come short list time.

What's this? Amazingly, there are exactly 10 things on the list. Not sure how that happened, but it's seems too good to be true.

Did I listen to fewer things this year? Don't think so. Fewer things to choose from? Absolutely, given the economic times, but not that many fewer.

Well, there's still some work to do, because I know Vijay Iyer's new disc is supposed to be a killer, so it will surely be in contention. The logistics of cross-border PR means that it hasn't reached me yet, though I do have a link to a download. So that's one. Another that is beckoning, as soon as I get through the current review assignments, is Keith Jarrett's Testament, which also promises great things.

Still, that's only 12. Funny, because it seemed like a good year. It's definitely a solid 10 so far; I'd put any one of them against anything in the past decade, and a couple have potential to be really memorable recordings years in the future. They definitely separated themselves from the pack, so some further analysis needed, but I'm happy that this year's list-making promises to be relatively painless.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Now Spinning: Stinging Strings

Jessica Pavone: Songs Of Synastry And Solitude (Tzadik) – Violist Jessica Pavone is an artist who appears able to balance multiple streams of inspiration simultaneously. Her impassioned contributions to Anthony Braxton's ensembles and her geek-girl duets with guitarist Mary Halvorson—to say nothing of several other projects that lie stylistically somewhere in between—would individually be enough for any single musician, and yet Pavone continues to find still more avenues of expression.

Taking its inspiration from Leonard Cohen's 1971 epochal Songs Of Love And Hate, Songs Of Synastry And Solitude brings Pavone together with the Toomai String Quartet for a set of 11 original compositions that are emotionally weighty and dark, yet ultimately uplifting. While there is no direct stylistic or thematic link to Cohen's songs, Pavone communicates the same sense of inevitability and universal suffering as the singer does, and leaves the listener with the same sense that there is hope in living—if only hope that daily suffering will be alleviated by the joy of song, love, spiritual enlightenment, and other forms of grace.

What was magical about Cohen's music—what made him seem so much older and wiser than either his years or his peers (save for Van Morrison, his Celtic cousin)—were the strands of music he selected to weave through his limited voice. When he decided to turn to music from literature in the 1960s, the former Buckskin Boy guitarist-turned-poet was worldly enough to pull in elements of European classical music, Greek bouzouki, Portuguese fado and Sephardic folk music. Like Bob Dylan, Cohen also delved deeply into the North American folk tradition, with all of its influence of English balladry, gospel and the blues.

Pavone and company can catch Cohen's sing-songy phrasing and the way he cuts that with a depth of emotion that reflects a lifetime of over-analysis and dread. Certain passages in songs like "Darling Options" and "Once Again" evoke Cohen's cadence, and there is a resonance in the bass strings that echoes Cohen's throaty whisper. This is measured, deliberate music that might be a love song, a prayer or just an acknowledgement that, as John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison once sang, you'll never get out of these blues alive.

In an era of celebratory rock—when even a dark presence like Jim Morrison could dance and whirl onstage—Cohen never sounded like a man who could truly let go. Cohen's music says that, even in moments of passion, one must be aware that loss and sorrow lie just around the bend, but it will be alright—life is measured over the long turn, not in individual moments. Pavone is unquestionably dark, too, but she can compose great movements of release, as on her absolutely gorgeous "Hope Dawson Is Missing." Minus lyrics, the title offers nothing but despair; musically, it seems to offer escape.

Gordon Grdina's East Van Strings: The Breathing Of Statues (Songlines) – One of the most exciting guitarists to emerge in the past decade, Vancouverite Gordon Grdina is another musician who seems to be able to effortlessly multi-task in several stylistic directions. Whether ripping it up with his wildly inventive Boxcutters or pursuing Turkish music, he is one of the innovative younger players who is carrying on Vancouver's tradition of being a great city for creative music.

His "string quartet" is anything but traditional, combining the always-inventive cellist Peggy Lee, polymathic violinist Jesse Zubot and frequent Bill Frisell collaborator Eyvind Kang. The band allows Grdina to employ both his electric guitar and oud, which he plays with tremendous energy—not so much the kind of visceral force that John McLaughlin created in his Mahavishnu Orchestra years, although Grdina can do that, too, but more of the kind of cerebral vibration that Derek Bailey or Joe Morris can generate.

Not surprisingly, given the players, The East Van Strings don't shy away from dissonance—often, violent dissonance, but there are also long passages of deep beauty. At both extremes, this is not a recording for background listening; it commands attention.

I am particularly enamoured of the title composition, a 14-minute, episodic piece that does indeed seem to breathe. Grdina's oud playing is especially expressive here, and after Lee introduces an ostinato at about the 11-minute mark it reaches a new level of beauty and emotional resonance. Elsewhere, there is mystery, with harsh winds blowing through "Santiago" as Grdina and Kang make ghostly tones, and grainy textures rising and wrapping around Grdina's unadorned guitar line on the lovely "Nayeli Joon."

As with most of Tony Reif's productions, it's all wonderfully recorded, as well.