Essential Music: Live at the Village Vanguard, by Bill Evans

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For the first live recording of his trio, Bill Evans accepted to be taped at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, playing with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. This was a Sunday, and the trio played five brief sets, all of which were recorded by Orin Keepnews, a producer Evans had worked with in the past and would do so again many times. The recordings were released on several albums: First, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, then Waltz for Debby showed the full range of songs from that day, and later More from the Vanguard was a collection of alternate takes. In 2003, a definitive set, The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961, was released, which contains all the music from these three albums, including one interrupted track that had not been released.

It’s easy to look back and judge history through hindsight, but the patrons of the triangular basement room at the Village Vanguard probably had no idea that they were witnesses to a historical recording. From the very first notes of Gloria’s Step, a piece composed by LaFaro, you can hear the perfection that Bill Evans and his various trios would bring to jazz over the next two decades, and the magical rapport that these three musicians had on stage. But the recording equipment lost power during this first song, leaving a partial take with a dropout in the middle. Those who read symbolism into the vagaries of life might see this as a premonition of Scott LaFaro’s death only ten days later in a car accident.But the recording remains one of the most powerful live recordings of any jazz music. Evans plays with the detachment and subtlety that made him such a great artist, allowing the other members of his trio to be creative performers and not mere accompanists. Evans would record many albums throughout his career in this lineup, which became his preferred way of playing, but the one to return to is this sacred 1961 recording.

It’s almost a shame to hear the crowd mingling and talking behind the musicians, as though they were impervious to the beauty of the music; Evans would say, “I just blocked out the noise and got a little deeper into the music,” but Paul Motian claims that the crowd is what he likes best about the recording: “The sounds of all those people, glasses and chatter; I mean, I know you’re supposed to be very offended and all, but I like it.”

Each of the pieces played that day is a masterpiece, from the jaunty Gloria’s Step’ to the heart-rending My Foolish Heart, to the delicate Waltz for Debby, one of Evans’ most beautiful pieces. When they finished their last set, with only a handful of people still listening, playing LaFaro’s Jade Visions? twice, they all went home leaving history behind them.

(You can read a moving article about this famous performance, by Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker.)

CD Review: sunlight to blue… blue to blackness by The Durutti Column

For nearly thirty years, I’ve been a fan of The Durutti Column, the name used by multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer Vini Reilly. I discovered The Return of the Durutti Column, Vini’s first album, back in 1980, shortly after it was released, and was immediately hooked. His combination of catchy melodies, his unique style of guitar playing, and his laconic voice give his music a tone that is his alone. So as, each year or so, a new Durutti Column album comes out, I buy it unhesitatingly.

The latest album, sunlight to blue… blue to blackness, is available from Kooky Records, a small label that has released the last few Durutti albums. (It is actually not released until June 23; I got a pre-release copy of it.)

Vini Reilly can be said to repeat himself; but that’s part of the charm of each Durutti Column album. The first track, a heart-rending acoustic guitar piece called “Glimpse”, is a reworking of a few early Durutti Column melodies, but is played with such delicacy and beauty, that it makes me melt. The first five tracks on this album are instrumentals, several featuring themes and riffs from earlier works, and the sixth track is a rhythm-box version of “Never Known”, a great old song from the 1981 disc LC. I’ve never been a big fan of Vini’s “electronicized” music, such as his Obey the Time album, but the song works well. “Ananda” is a beautiful piano-based track, written and performed by Poppy Morgan, with “intrusive guitar” by Vini. “Head Glue” is a very languid duet sung by Vini and XXXX, and “Demo for Gathering Dust” is, as its title suggests, a version of a song on the Idiots Savants disc released last year, in which Vini shows off his acoustic guitar skills (though it gets a bit vague near the end as he riffs out on chords). “Cup a Soup Romance” is another guitar instrumental, and “Grief” is a solo piano piece.

All in all, another beautiful album from Vini Reilly. In a way, though, the three songs with vocals don’t really fit with the other eight tracks; this album would have been a bit more satisfying as an instrumental-only disc. But there’s not a weak song on it, and I’d recommend it to all, fans of The Durutti Column or newcomers.

Essential Music: The Return of The Durutti Column

UntitledFor those who weren’t around or listening to music in 1979, it’s hard to imagine how different the world of “popular” music was. Critics and retailers hadn’t fragmented music into the many genres you see today in stores, and many of today’s genres didn’t even exist. Rap was taking its first steps, ambient and electronic music were considered avant-garde, new age was just budding, and punk and disco were battling it out in the record bins. New wave was just following in the footsteps of punk, as progressive rock was in its final death throes.

Amidst the punk and new-wave music that came out of England, as part of the late-’70s independent music scene, was a now-legendary record label based in Manchester: Factory Records. Its first two groups were Joy Division (which, after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, morphed into New Order) and The Durutti Column, but Factory released many other records by little-known groups, and the Factory concept, together with other independent labels in the UK, such as Rough Trade, revitalized a moribund music scene.

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Essential Music: Charles Ives

Scott Mortensen writes:

I vividly remember the first time I ever heard the music of Charles Ives. The piece was the raucous “Putnam’s Camp” movement from Three Places in New England. I’d never heard anything so immediate and vital and joyous; it made me laugh out loud with pleasure. My current favorite recording of this work is by conductor James Sinclair and the Orchestra New England, a disc that also includes Ives’ Four Ragtime Dances, the Set for Theatre Orchestra, and other short orchestral works. If you’ve never heard Ives’ music before, this is the perfect place to begin. To my ears, Ives’ Fourth Symphony is one of the great masterworks of the twentieth century. Ives’ Fourth is one of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ specialties, and no one has surpassed his recording, which is coupled with Symphony No. 1. Tilson Thomas’ mastery of Ives’ music is also clear on his recording of the Holidays Symphony, an essential disc that also includes tremendous readings of “Central Park in the Dark” and “The Unanswered Question,” which is probably Ives’ best known composition.

Along with orchestral music, Ives composed a large body of songs and chamber works. For a fascinating selection of Ives’ songs, check out recital by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish. DeGaetani has a completely idiomatic command of Ives’ unique musical language, and the disc demonstrates the enormous stylistic range of his songs.

Lastly, no survey of Ives’ essential music is complete without his Second Piano Sonata, subtitled “Concord, Mass., 1840-60.” Each movement of the sonata is a musical portrait of a New England Transcendentalist writer who inspired Ives: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcott family and Henry David Thoreau, and. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has made two recordings of the “Concord.” They are very different, but each is stunning in its own way. For the more Olympian, thrusting view, seek out his first recording on New World; for a more inward, depths-plumbing perspective, try Hamelin’s recent recording on Hyperion.

Scott Mortensen is an avid fan of the music of Charles Ives, and has created the Internet’s most comprehensive web site on the composer.

Yet Another Important Box Set: Bach’s Sacred Cantatas

Gustav Leonhardt & Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the Concentus Musicus Wien

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If you like Bach, you simply must be familiar with his sacred cantatas. These vocal and instrumental works, written to be performed in church on Sundays and on feast days, feature some of Bach’s finest melodies. This set, conducted by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, was groundbreaking when it was first released, starting in the 1970s. At the time, it was the only complete set of cantatas, but now many others are available. Performed in what is now called historically informed performance, this set is unique in that it has no female singers; only boys are used for the soprano voices, unlike other recordings.

This re-release is a reminder just how great this music is, and how important it is to know. While I have this set, and like it, I prefer more recent recordings, such as the in-progress complete sets by John Gardiner or Maasaki Suzuki. But the pure instrumental sound achieved in these recordings, and the simplicity of the boy singers’ voices, makes it an essential recording. It’s not cheap, but for Bach fanatics it is a must-have.

Glenn Gould Box Set: Available Now

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As the holiday season approaches, it’s time for plenty of box sets to tempt music fans. This one, a collection of every recording Glenn Gould made, 80 CDs that resemble the original LPs, is a godsend for fans of the Great Gould. I have to admit having a weakness for Glenn, especially for his Bach recordings. While I own all his Bach, and much of his Beethoven, there are many discs I don’t have, and this set is very tempting indeed. Gould was one of those rare performers who lived a life dedicated to music his way. He famously gave up touring to focus on recording in the studio, looking for perfection with technology. This may or may not have been the best choice, but Gould’s recordings are some of the most idiomatic in the history of piano recordings.

Coincidentally, I recently read an interesting biography of Gould entitled Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. So I’m in the perfect mindset to listen to lots of Gould, and I’m looking forward to this set.