Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

So Dave Douglas's new album, Spirit Moves, is a real beauty. Released two weeks ago on Douglas's own Greenleaf label, Douglas's Brass Ecstasy is a compact and funky unit that mixes trumpet (Douglas), trombone (Luis Bonilla), french hornist Vincent Chaney, the inimitable tubist Marcus Rojas, and Nasheet Waits on drums. The tunes are often harmonically straightforward (compared to some of Douglas's more extended outings) and resonate on a certain New Orleans vibe, but they are never simplistic, and the New Orleans sense of counterpoint gets a compelling facelift.

Like many composers of his generation (also--what's with the jazz world's labeling of anyone who isn't 60 yet as a "young" musician?!) Douglas is exploring texture, vibe, rhythm, and groove rather than compulsively overloading his tunes with extensions and licks. I don't often get all ravey about a recording instantly (actually, that's a lie: I get all evangelical about recordings I like the second I hear them, which is part of why I started this blog), but for the last week, I've been finding small little charms in these arrangements, that can sound more intimate than--and much larger than--five men depending on the context.

Too bad I downloaded this on iTunes. These tunes are so great that a forward-thinking brass quintet/quartet might want to tackle them. I'm thinking of picking up the charts: for $40, you can download the sheet music and recordings from Greenleaf. This way, you can support great music on the one hand, learn it from the inside, and not be tempted to email Dave Douglas's manager to see if you can get a copy of the charts. (I haven't done this, but know of more than a few jazz stalkers out there...)

The album starts off with an arrangement of Rufus Wainright's This Love Affair that sounds like a most impassioned dirge version of St. James Infirmary for which Bach wrote the inner voices. Much of this has to do with Wainright's original harmonization--here's a video of it:

It's a very beautiful tune, but with Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy, it takes on a certain ritualistic quality, and--on the climactic turnaround--Rufus Wainright's beautiful melodic figures soar in Douglas's high range, which of late has sounded so easy and soaring that it's like the most moving infomercial for the Caruso method. And the voicing of the ensemble makes what was affecting in Wainright's hair-raising. Pay special attention to the french horn lines:

Here's another video with Douglas discussing how the group functions as a chamber ensemble, followed by "The View from Blue Mountain," a latin piece with a six-feel. Pay particular attention to how much harmony (and how richly the harmony) jumps out when there's no comping instrument:

My other favorites on the album? Orujo, a syncopated romp with some in-the-pocket french horn offbeats; The Brass Ring, that moves out of a lovely chorale into an impossibly slow, tight vamp midway; Great Awakening, an allusive kaleidescope of hymnody (I heard aspects of Just a Closer Walk and Silver Bells, but I'm probably missing a few obvious ones) that's Douglas's funniest tune since Elk's Club; Mister Pitiful, the Otis Redding tune; Bowie, a funky nod to the legendary Lester.

A bit before I picked up Spirit Moves, I read a Sasha Frere-Jones piece in the New Yorker on the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. A true band of brothers--sons of AACM co-founder/Sun Ra trumpeter Phil Cochran. I just picked up their label debut on iTunes and have been sorting through it. It's great groove music, almost all insistent, in minor key, very tight, and more ahead-of-the-beat than today's crop of New Orleans-style brass bands (which you shouldn't expect them to sound like). They're doing their own thing, and have a keen business sense after parlaying street success (literally--in Times Square, and on Chicago's South Side) with web word-o-mouth and now a successful European tour being chronicled in a frank, funny, and frequently updated blog.

"We could set up in a blackout, on a boat, plane, wherever." Love it. Reminds me of Green Eggs and Ham.

Don't expect jazz, per se: these are tunes to grab you, shake you, and put you down again in time for you to catch your train, but it's all very, very tight and a new direction. If you follow them on the web a bit, you'll find out that they--like Douglas, and the AACM, for that matter--are very commited to taking control of the commercial aspect of their music. I suspect we'll be seeing a whole lot of them in the future. Go to their myspace for clips.

If I had to recommend one download from their new album so far, it would probably be Jupiter, an irresistible space-age vamp that lays out a bit longer that some of their other tunes and sounds like the bridge from the theme from Shaft looped by Roy Hargrove overdubbing himself and playing against his own delay--except that it's all acoustic and tight. I'm sure a national tour is right around the corner, so stay tuned.

More later.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It's a tempting offer, but I think I'll pass (but while you're at it, si'l vous plait, pass me my tempting offer!)

I woke up this morning with a very, very promising offer from amazon. Alas, I can't believe I had the willpower to turn it down:


Dear Amazon.com Customer,

As someone who has purchased or rated music by Duke Ellington, you might like to know that New York, March 1959 is now available. You can order yours for just $950.00 by following the link below.

New York, March 1959New York, March 1959
Duke Ellington
Other Versions and Languages
MP3 Download

Add to Cart

Album Description
New York, March 1959 by Ellington, Duke

This product is manufactured on demand using CD-R recordable media. Amazon.com's standard return policy will apply.

Track Listings

1. Fat Mouth
2. Lost In The Night
3. Little John's Tune
4. Frou-Frou
5. Dankworth Castle
6. Moonstone
7. Night Stick
8. Lullaby For Dreamers
9. She Was A Twinkling Thing
10. Jamaica Tomboy
11. Still Water
12. Jet Strip

More to Explore



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In other Amazon.Com news, I didn't have the willpower to turn down the new (now 5 vol.) release of Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, $127. But here's what I did:

If you buy it via amazon.co.uk, it amounts to $107 (USD) after shipping. So, unless you're in a hurry (and if you're going to read all 3,856 pages before school recommences in the fall, I understand that).

But even though the American release date still reads as June 22nd, the US site is still taking preorders and the UK site doesn't even have an option to buy it anymore. Am I still getting my books that I ordered?! GAH! WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?

Or are the Oxford Music Editors just spending some time away from their families "on the Appalachian Trail," so to speak?

UPDATE: An oh-so polite, oh-so British email from a fine customer servant from amazon.co.uk:

Please accept our apologies for this inconvenience, but "Oxford History of Western Music:: 1 (Oxford History of Western Musc)" appears to have been a surprise sellout.

When you placed your order #
XXXXXXXXXXXX, we believed we had access to more copies - we then discovered that every one of our distributors had rapidly sold out.

Major distributors have thousands of copies on order from the publisher, all apparently awaiting the next print run. As soon as more copies become available, we'll be able to dispatch them to our customers.

That's good news, as long as my bargain price is still locked in. Maybe it's finally at an affordable level to be used as textbook material (though that really wasn't its intention). I wonder what an entire Taruskin
brand curriculum, a Norton competitor, would look like. In particular, it would be interesting to see what sort of gutsy (provocative?) choices he would have in a hypothetical companion CD. The "authentistic" battle is now the stuff of history (and indeed, I was about five when "historical" went out the window), but a companion box set or--if pigs could fly--an OUP-sponsored Taruskin iMix might be a nifty bit of cross-promotion and a harmless, proverbial grenade that could liven up the discussion on the AMS-listserv. American Musicology's most prestigious mode of, uh, colloquy has somehow become even more dull and ingrown of late.

Would some senior scholar please write something shocking (or at least bracing), if only to liven up my inbox?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Middle C, Sort Of

So, I was on a gameshow last night on Iowa City cable access. Uh, if you really want, you can digg it?

I remember quite some time ago talking to another TA (I don't remember who, or even if they were a music TA) about how weird it is to write on a board--how odd spelling is, or music notation, when it's giant and right in front of your face. With that caveat, music fans may want to skip to 17:50, where I get a question I (or, you know, a third-grader) should slam out of the ballpark, but I only sort of get it right.

Which begs the question of the century in music pedagogy: do they make whiteboard rostrums? Yes, I know there are whiteboards with music staves already on them, but there's just something about the thought of seeing a teacher line up five pieces of chalk, each broken in its own weird way, that gets lost in this new age of markers.

Of course, who's ever been in a classroom that had two working dry erase markers, let alone five?

What did I learn about myself? (A bulleted list)

  • I'm a big giant nerd
  • I don't know anything about beer.
  • I don't know anything about science.
  • I'm utterly reliant on a calculator for even basic arithmetic
  • I'm super nerdy.
  • I talk with my hands.
  • I make funny faces.
  • I fidget.
  • I talk with my hands, a whole lot.
  • I make funny faces, a whole lot.
  • I fidget, a whole lot.
  • I'm nerdy.
  • I need to brush up on the British new-wave.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Grand Celebration of Brass Bands and new Eastern Iowa Brass Band CD, Podcast

I play Eb cornet in the Eastern Iowa Brass Band, a fun way to spend some time with grown-ups (most of whom act like children :)), keep up my finger technique (which has never been my strong suit), and play some listenable, "corny" music. First of all, next weekend, we are having our annual Grand Celebration of Brass Bands in the beautiful Amana Colonies. From the press release:


Join Director Casey Thomas and the Eastern Iowa Brass Band (EIBB) for some good old fashioned fun at the 15th annual Grand Celebration of Brass Bands on Saturday, June 20. This family-friendly event is filled with great music, great food and audience participation. The EIBB is thrilled to be performing at our new venue, the Amana Colonies RV Park, located at 39 38th Avenue in Amana.

Performing at this year’s Grand Celebration are (in order of appearance) the award-winning Eastern Iowa Brass Band, the award-winning Chicago Brass Band, and the always-entertaining Madison Brass Band. Concerts begin on the hour starting at 11am and run continuously through 6 pm, allowing our audience to delight in the fun and enthusiasm of brass music all day long and all from the same stage. The final performance of the day begins at 5:30 pm and is a mass band performance including all musicians from all three groups. You won’t want to miss this! Ticket prices for the day are $8 for adults and $3 for students.

The Eastern Iowa Brass Band is also celebrating the release of their new compact disc recording. Entitled “Sweet Cornets”, this entertaining CD features such favorites as: “ABBA Goes Brass”, “MacArthur Park”, “Alpine Samba”, and Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday.” This new CD will be available for purchase at the festival, or from their website at www.eibb.org.

I actually played three years ago at the GCOBB with the Chicago Brass Band, where my dad played baritone for awhile. I wasn't a brass-bander in '07, and last year, the Great Flood of '08 utterly destroyed the charming but dusty basin where past GCOBBs have been held.

This is such a great event, very light-hearted and entertaining--very family and senior friendly.

We're also celebrating the release of our new album, "Sweet Cornets." It's really a lovely album, with the kind of recording quality that few local bands feature. I actually came up with the title (I know, corny, right?), and it features the higher half of the band mostly, with solo features and marches intermingling with some pop tunes (an ABBA medley, Macarthur Park, and Hot Toddy). I actually have a feature on there, in an Eb/Bb cornet reworking of Herbert L. Clarke's cornet/trombone duet "Cousins" with solo cornettist Paul Waech that turned out sounding much better than I remember playing it!

To listen to selections online, as well as an interview with our director Casey Thomas, check us out on the brasscast podcast.

If you're a brass-bander, definitely consider picking it up, or buy it as a gift! (My dad's getting a copy for father's day--whoops, spoiler alert!) The cover art, conceived by cornetist Keri Speidel (who keeps up a very entertaining blog here) is especially lovely, and was featured on a CD design website a little while back.

All in all, the strength and growth of the brass band movement in America is a great sign for our culture. Having all of these challenging but friendly local outlets like the EIBB (as well as, for older folks, the New Horizon bands, which I think is just about the best idea ever) we strengthen the relevance of the arts and arts education, build audiences, promote the idea of music as something you do rather than something that's "just on," and build family traditions of music and music-making.

Anyway, check out the podcast, and consider an outing to the Amanas next weekend. There will be plenty of amazing food, beer (if you're into that sort of thing), music, and cameraderie. And I promise: it's sort of indoors, so you won't get rained on!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Update; Cage and the Abstract Expressionists; Art; Languages; Books in Brief

Greetings, music blogosphere! Or, "Salve, blogosphere!" I've been away for some time from everyday internetting, mainly out of internet fatigue--and research fatigue--but (to paraphrase Flight of the Conchords) also mainly because of my laptop's DC jack, which has been undergoing an intermittent fail ever since Easter, and it has been enduring joint custody with lengthy, unsupervised visitation by its other putative parent--an electronics manufacturer whose name rhymes with Just Lie.

Since then, I've taken a three-week course in Contemporary Art history. It went very well, and I wrote a research paper on Cage and art the art world where I viewed his embrace of chance not as a reaction to integral serialism but as a reaction to abstract expressionism. His late 1960s performance piece Mureau (an excerpt of which is apparently available here in ringtone form? caveat emptor)--and his 1970s chance-derived prints from Thoreau--in a sense took the archetypal American Romantic and dismembered his words and images.

Cage was closely involved with figures like Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell in the early 1950s (to say nothing of Robert Rauschenberg), and--for a musician who was developing a damning critique of The Great Artist and attacking Beethoven at every turn as the fifties progressed--what, say, Clement Greenberg claimed on behalf of the Abstract Expressionists intersects compellingly with where Cage was headed, albeit in the other direction. Here's Greenberg from a 1947 essay (viewable in context via googlebooks):

What we have…is the ferocious struggle to be a genius, which involves the artists downtown even more than the others…Alas, the future of American art depends on them. That it should is fitting but sad. Their isolation is inconceivable, crushing, unbroken, damning. That anyone can produce art on a respectable level in this situation is highly improbable. What can fifty do against a hundred and forty million?

Just as in "the Ives myth" (which has now been under deconstruction for as long as it was under construction proper, making it very nearly a straw man these days--the myth has myths and countermyths and a whole constellation of counter-countermyths), Greenberg's artists fall under the Thoreauvian paradigm of isolation; or, to use a more politically charged word with some recent musicological and critical cachet, mavericks. It's them against the world, in a romantic struggle against isolation and underappreciation. If Beethoven is the root of German romanticism, certainly Concord is the root (or a root) of America's romantic impulse and--even while spurring on a love for nature and the like--removing the transcendental content from Thoreau and leaving him as a banal collection of sounds and dismembered image is at once a celebration and critique. But then, that's the fun with Cage: to experience bits of Thoreau as if it were an environment in and of itself. That was the point of Thoreau, after all, wasn't it?

This really was my first experience writing about Cage, and everything that bothers me in Cage scholarship--or conversations about Cage--I did within the first five minutes of starting to type. All of the sudden Cage's humor vanishes into this ether of mystical paen, paradox, or resistance. Just as I've always hated, I of course started reading Cage's early writings and letters into his later, more radical aesthetic, viewing his endpoints as inevitable outgrowths of earlier ideas. (Leta Miller doesn't do this, which is why she's one of my favorite scholars to read, and I happily polished off her smaller Lou Harrison book written with Fredric Lieberman in an unadvisedly late night a couple weeks ago.)

Pitfalls and generalizations aside, I've been reading (and listening to) quite a bit about Cage lately. On the listening front, I've been checking out some of the Arditti albums, listening ever more closely to the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, and have been especially fond of the ACO disc The Seasons, which includes The Seasons, Concerto for Prepared Piano, Suite for Toy Piano (also included in a stunning Lou Harrison orchestration that, at times, blurs the line between Cage and populist Copland), and a brooding, contemplative realization of 74, one of the "number" pieces.

I've been sampling everything from the excellent Cambridge companion, to this absolutely stunning Walker Art Center book of interviews with Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, and Bill T. Jones, to the recent Tony Conrad history, and--most of all, lately--Martin Duberman's wonderful, compelling, readable, thorough history of Black Mountain College, published in 1972 but reprinted a couple of months ago. It's interesting--every summer, I place a handful of books into Darwinian conflict, and one wins out--in this case, Duberman's. It's a very compelling, self-conscious attempt to assess the impact and structure of one of America's most unorthodox, defunct, and influential academic communities.

I did quite a bit of extracurricular reading while taking art history, although I did have to study hard for the slide exams, but all of the sudden this week, I'm having to face my fears, academically speaking: language.

Foreign language has oddly never come easily to me. I have a great ear, and a fantastic memory, but not for forms. I have some background in Latin, but I did a really awful job as a Latin student in undergrad. Now, I'm taking a French reading course each morning (which is so concise and unfussy that I'm wondering why undergraduates don't learn that way) and redoing intensive Latin in daily three-hour sessions. Yes, it's confusing, but I'm very relaxed in the summer, and so far have been able to stay on task much more easily. My high school guidance counselor actually recommended Cornell College to me eight years ago during my college search, because there are block classes, and she identified that that's how I learn best. You know what? She was right. I'll be halfway done with two languages this summer, and--having never traveled abroad--am planning on applying for a DAAD language study grant for summer 2010, hopefully allowing me to get back in time to take the second half of the French reading course. It feels good to confront these weaker areas of my mind, jump into it, and see that I could feasibly complete coursework by June 2011, and then launch into a genius dissertation that will change the music world forever, about--[message truncated]--