Sunday, May 22, 2011

Intimate, Creative and, often, Calming

Composer-pianist Steve Hudson is a new name to me but, once I espied the lineup on "Galactic Diamonds", I became even more intrigued.  Cellist/vocalist Jody Redhage, violinist Zach Brock and percussionist Martin Urbach make up Hudson's Chamber Ensemble who join himfor a program that blends numerous styles of music into an hour of sweet melodies, subtle harmonies, understated yet powerful rhythms and impressive interactions. Hudson, who has worked with improvisor/composers such as Steven Bernstein, James Zollar, Clare Daly and Marcus Rojas, also co-leads the Outer Bridge Ensemble with bassist Mark Dejeong. 

Much of this program is on the quieter side but packs quite an emotional punch. There's the bluesy "Tune With Tango" that opens the CD on a sly yet stylish way ( I hear a touch of Jelly Roll Morton in some of the piano lines while Brock shines on his dramatic solo. "Speak Out" rides in on a pizzicato cello line while Hudson's left hand lays down a solid and spunky rhythm. The piano solo builds off Ms. Redhage's rocking lines, twisting, turning and dancing over Urbach's active hand percussion. For the lovely cello solo, Hudson takes over the the cellist's bass lines.  There's a sense of wistful longing on "Song for John Lennon" with its lengthy piano solo - Brock adds his voice 4 minutes into the 7 minute piece and the others join 30 seconds later.  The longing is replaced for a moment by celebration before the piano finishes the piece alone again.  The title track really bounces, from Urbach's hard-edged drumming to Ms Redhage's furious bowing to the full-voiced melody line (and there are several quieter moments, one with a lovely wordless vocal line from the cellist. Hudson trots out an electric piano for Headhunters-inspired "Funky Hobbit."  Half the fun is hearing Urbach laying down the wonderfully funky beat, Brock's driving solo and Ms Redhage's Jimi Hendrix/Thurston Moore spot that closes with a duel between the quiet pizzicato and more furious bowing. A bit more tango enters into the closing track, "Mingus Moon", a piece with much dynamic variation and tension. There is also a very quiet piano solo, soaked in blues that slowly rises in volume as the band hits a bit harder and Hudson takes in their energy, pushing the piece back up in intensity.

"Galactic Diamonds" sparkles with wit and musicality, music for mature listeners yet with quite a bit of humor and happiness in the mix.  Hard to avoid calling this release a "gem" but it is really an excellent offering from Steve Hudson and associates.  To find out more, go to

Ms. Redhage's cello and voice also show up on "Streetcar Journey" (Married Fox Records), the latest recording from pianist Chie Sato Roden & Fire in July.  The project began when Ms Roden discovered composer Alex North's suite from his score for the 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."The suite only lasts 30 minutes so, to fill out the program, Ms Roden enlisted Ms Redhage and her husband Alan Ferber (trombonist) to create new pieces inspired by "Streetcar."  The results are mighty impressive, songs replete with rich melody lines and instrumental work that mine classical, popular and jazz musics.   Joining the creative triumvirate (and comprising the Fire in July ensemble) are Ken Thomson (clarinet, bass clarinet), Tim Collins (vibraphone), Fred Kennedy (drums, percussion) and Dan Tepfer (piano on Ms Redhage's "Sister, My Sister.") Ms. Redhage's vocals may remind some of the style of singing one hears in a Stephen Sondheim musical, not quite opera or jazz or, even, "popular" but bordering on poetic or, perhaps, "art music." However you wish to describe it, they add weight to the program allowing a glimpse into the lives of Williams' characters.

Thomson's reeds work well alongside the full tones of the trombone and the rich cello.  Kennedy is a sympathetic player whose colors are essential to the music as is the work of Collins.  Roden is a full-voiced pianist whose knowledge of the play and movie imbue the music with gravitas but not to the point of dullness. The solo pieces, all arranged by North, displays the influence of New Orleans music (the play and movie are set in the Crescent City) with a feel of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. One can hear the dramatic influence in the "raggy" bass lines of "Mania" as well as in the formal melody and harmony of "Soliloquoy - Redemption."  Ferber's "North Rampart" closes the CD, a lovely ensemble piece (no piano or drums) that highlights the lovely sounds of Thomson's clarinet (very little vibrato), the darker yet no less handsome trombone (especially on the warm melody), the soft, pulsating vibes (sweet blues lick that takes the tune out) and the smart cello counterpoint.

Chie Sato Roden & Fire in July are bringing the work of Alex North to a 21st-Century audience in a way that not only pays great respect but, along with the original works of Jody Redhage and Alan Ferber, also give Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" a new set of viable musical interpretations. For more information, go to

"The Stream of Pearls Project: Inspired by Water" is the work of Massachusetts-based composer/pianist Claire Ritter and her 10th to be issued on Zoning Recordings. The pieces are inspired by and dedicated to different bodies of water, from the Charles River in Boston to the waterways of the 1000 Islands in both New York state and Canada to the Outer Banks/Ocracoke Island of North Carolina.  Charming, often beautiful,  sometimes lively, other times hushed, honest music that conveys the peace one can feel in the presence of nature.  True, we all know that water can be damaging, harsh and unyielding but, in Ms. Ritter's music, water is spirit, creativity and ever-changing. Here, the music reflects the composer's influences of jazz, Latin music, 20th Century classical music, and more. This is a CD for a cool summer's evening or late winter night (to remind one of the warmth of spring) and not for analyzing for its jazz pedigree or who influenced which soloist. 
Joining the pianist on various tracks are Ashima Scripp (cello), Toni Naples and Rick Hansen (accordions), Richie Stearns (banjo), Jon Metzger (vibraphone) and Takaaki Masuko (drums, percussion).  18 tracks in under 48 minutes and there are moments one wishes the song was longer  (because the groove is sweet or the melody attractive) but listeners who like to get lost in reveries will find much to like in these "streams." To find out more about Claire Ritter (and her work with Dave Holland, Ran Blake, Steve Swallow and others), go to

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