Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Youth Movement (Part 1)

Nary a month goes by without a writer, critic, reviewer, venerable sage, etc. saying that "Jazz is Dead" or "Classical Music is strictly for old folks" or some tripe such as that.

Yet thousands of CDs and downloads are available every year and a good percentage feature music either composed by and/or performed by women and men under the age of 30.  Not all are good, few are great but, more and more, many of these recordings are quite impressive.

Vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, the daughter of a French mother and Haitian father, grew up in Miami, Florida.  In 2010, after spending several years in France studying law and music, Ms. Salvant won the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition.  Even before her first official US release, she has received numerous accolades from critics such as Stephen Holden and Ben Ratliff.

With all that praise, one can only hope that this new CD, "WomanChild" (Mack Avenue), lives up to the hype.  Happy to report that this is a dazzling program, ranging from traditional blues to folk songs to standards to originals (some of the pieces date 100 years and more) and featuring a knock-out band composed of Rodney Whitaker (bass), Herlin Riley (drums), and Aaron Diehl (piano) with James Chirillo (guitar, banjo) on several tracks. One can hear the influence of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, and Cassandra Wilson yet this is an artist who takes those influences and injects her personality as well as talent into the songs.

One is tempted to go through every track - here are tracks that stand out on the first several listens.  "You Bring Out The Savage In Me", dating from 1935, romps in on the "jungle" drums of Riley.  Diehl's piano chords reverberate in the background, Whitaker's bass thumps and Ms. Salvant delivers the lyrics with playful exuberance.  She's has a splendid range, with a distinct personality for each register.  The Ella Fitzgerald "sound" shows up in "I Didn't Know What Time It Was"; after a pair of finely-articulated verses, the vocalist steps aside for Whitaker's pleasing solo and Diehl's dazzling spot. One is more than ready when Ms. Salvant returns, taking her cue from the final line of the piano solo.  An absolutely rocking version of "John Henry" is irresistible from beginning to end.  The first 2 versions are sung over the dancing bass lines and funky drums.  When the pianist enters, he dampens the strings with one hand, making the piano notes "pop", like a banjo.  The title track is an original tune, with McCoy Tyner-like piano chords, and has the feel of an Oscar Brown Jr. song. The interaction of the musicians is exciting and conversational, with Diehl's solo forthright and swinging. Chirillo's bluesy acoustic guitar - think Lonnie Johnson - ushers in a sweet reading of Clarence Williams's "Baby Have Pity on Me." When Riley enters, he plays sweet and simple and, golly he swings this tune, first recorded by Bessie Smith in 1930, oh-so -nicely.  Ms. Salvant's elastic vocal lines on "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" suggest the influence of Betty Carter; one hears it in the wordless lines that open the track and in her deliberate reading of the first lyrics and then, does she take off, oh my.

Cecile McLorin Salvant certainly has serious "chops" but, even better, she inhabits these songs in such a way that they sound fresh, exciting and appealing.  "WomanChild" may describe Ms. Salvant (23 at the time of the recording) but she is also a stunning vocalist, interpreter and, yes, an entertainer.  For more information, go to

Multi-reed player Steven Lugerner's debut recording was actually an impressive 2-CD set, one disk featuring pianist Myra Melford, trumpeter Darren Johnston and drummer Matt Wilson - the music Lugerner created for this chamber quartet was inspired by his study of the 5 Books of Moses, the Torah.  Lugerner creates his music using the system of gematria in which the composer assigned used the number assigned to each Hebrew letter to the chords or the time signature or the duration of each note.

"For Have We Heard" (Primary Records) uses the same system as the previous CD and the same ensemble but this time the pieces are shorter (10 songs in under 33 minutes). The title comes from the Book of Joshua, Chapter 2, Verse 10.  The avid listener probably does not need to know all that while the curious one will look for herself.  What is impressive is the conversational quality of the music and the excellent interaction.  Both Ms. Melford and Mr. Wilson can and do play anything in front of them while Mr Johnston's crisp tone is a fine foil for the different reeds the composer plays throughout.  Johnston has a touch of Lester Bowie in him which one hears in his short, clarion-blast, solo on "When a Long Blast Is Sounded", a piece that the drummer displays a forceful style.  Wilson leads the way on"Drove Out Before Us" - he has the "vocal" part on the first half of the piece.  Lugerner carries the low line on the bass clarinet, adding reed splashes as the song fades.  The driving rhythms push "Be Strong and Resolute" until Ms. Melford's rumbling piano slows down the song until Lugerner's soprano carries the melody. Utilizing numerous overdubs, Lugerner creates a woodwind choir on "Before Our Very Eyes" playing the melody in tandem with Wilson's splendid cymbal work.  The melody line on "All Those Kings" has elements of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I Have Seen" but soon the piece moves into a tenor saxophone solo over Wilson's marching drums. Johnston's counterpoint weaves in and around the saxophone.  When the piano enters (3 minutes into the performance, Ms. Melford starts playing the bass line before opening up for a just a short while.  The stately melody and drumming have the feel of a song from the Civil War.

Though the pieces are fairly short (2 of the 10 tracks barely break the 5 minute mark and 3 are under 1:45), the music is fully realized.  There are several occasions in which Steven Lugerner using studio effects on the reeds or trumpet to create a drone.  "For Have We Heard" has no allegiance to any one style of creative music but the program remains true to its composer's unique vision.  Take the time to wend your way through the songs - the reward is in the impressive architecture of the performances. For more information, go to  

In 2003, Kronos Quartet launched the Under 30 Project which the ensemble writes "is designed to help nurture the careers of young artists, while enabling Kronos to forge stronger connections with the next creative generation."  This new recording " Under 30 Project: 1-4" (self-released digital only), puts the spotlight on the first 4 composers to win the competition.  Alexandra du Bois (USA) won the 2003 competition with her piece "String Quartet: Oculus Pro Oculo Totum Orbem Terrae Caecat " - the music blends fractured single-note melodies, dissonance and deep bowed cello, building to a climax of long, keening lines from the violins and viola. Ms. du Bois has since composed a second string quartet for Kronos. In 2004, Felipe Perez Santiago (Mexico) contributed the mysterious "CampoSanto"; the shivering lines, recorded sounds and an insistent rhythm move the piece forward in a frenetic fashion.  Dan Visconti (USA) created "Love Bleeds Radiant" which opens with the crackling of what sounds as if it comes from an 78 rpm recording.  The piece builds slowly to a loud climax before taking a quieter journey to a second even noisier climax (as if the musicians were being tossed around on a boat in the midst of an hellacious storm.)  Aviya Kopelman (Russia/Israel) is the 4th composer honored;  her 3-part "Widows and Lovers" opens with crowd noises and the string quartet warming up which soon becomes the work itself.  "Part I: White Widow" also includes synthesized drums, spoken sentence fragments before moving onto the much more serene "Part II: Lovers" which opens with breathing that opens to plucked cello, voice, heartbeats, a triangle, percussive sounds and the occasional melody line.  "Part III: Black Widow" starts in dramatic fashion with a rhythmic pattern in the cello and violins that resemble a soundtrack from a Western movie.  The motor rhythm is carried throughout the movement, morphing into new patterns until dropping out altogether as the work winds down.  

To find out more about the Under 30 Project and to purchase the download, go to  The site contains program notes and biographies of the composers as well as the winner #5.  Like most forms of creative music, contemporary classical is evolving, far from dead, far from gone.  

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