Friday, September 20, 2013

Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd: Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dream Project, Pi Recordings, 2013

The third collaboration between composer/pianist, Vijay Iyer, and poet/electronics artist, Mike Ladd, Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dream Project, intensifies its subject matter so much so that the music and words seize the heart and haunt the mind with stark and irrevocable truths. 

Originally commissioned and premiered at the Harlem Stage in New York, this provocative work took four years to produce. Two veterans, USMC writer, Maurice Decaul, and USAF service woman, Lynn Hill, contributed directly to the performance of the piece speaking their own words.  Decaul and Hill also linked Ladd and Patricia McGregor (Director of the Harlem Stage) to other veterans of multiple ethnic backgrounds, who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be interviewed on the basis of their post-war experiences, specifically with a focus on their dreams and memories, which evolved into expressions of anguish, solitude, fear and hope. Iyer has said that this musical work allowed “the space” for veterans to be heard, that they not be “rendered” or painted through their words, but play an active role in the “building” of the musical piece.  

This work is not easily ingested. The descriptions put forth conjure up horrific images and plaguing concepts which are poignantly complemented with the music. Iyer composed sixteen of the seventeen pieces of Holding It Down. Vocalist Pamela Z composed the last.

Distinguishing itself from hip-hop, rap, opera, or songspeil, Holding It Down is diversely and consciously shaped. Ladd’s voice and poetry begins the recording: its raspy, near whisper corals an overall evocation of compassion and longing to fix things so war is not the answer to conflict. The contrast among Ladd’s voice and that of Decaul, Hill and Pamela Z moves the music into various emotive zones and positions the listening from shifting gender perspectives.

The change from acoustic to electronic instrumentation and the brilliantly smooth integration of the two does nothing more than emphasize the contemporaniety of the subject at hand. The formal piano opening with cello line establishes a pattern where quiet or disquieting melodies grow into the grip of seriousness by means of gradual crescendos or solid rhythmical tensions that dance with eclecticism and repeated percussive or synthesized punctuation. The music often offers a kind of substantial relief in the paradoxically uplifting nature of the sound surrounding the poetry. At no time, does the music override the significance of the words.

The emotional thoroughness of Holding It Down translates to how each poem triggers an unpredictable response whose intensity is measurable at the conclusion of the recording. The closing “Mess Hall” acts retrospectively in relation to preceding parts, using the metaphor of steel cafeteria trays functioning as the building blocks for a bridge away from war, to the place called Home. 

Holding It Down testifies to the manner in which art can literally speak volumes about geo-politics, the horrors of human behavior, the breadth of human consciousness and the depth of instinctual human spirit.  This recording is praiseworthy, beyond the scope of the critical accolade, to be placed in a category all its own: an exquisitely cut diamond that has unquenchable fire.

copyright 2013 Lyn Horton

Track Listing: 
Here (Mike, Cambridge); Derelict Poetry (Maurice, Brooklyn); Capacity (Lynn, Bronx); Walking With The Duppy (Rashan, Queens); There Is A Man Slouching In The Stairway (Maurice, Brooklyn); My Fire (Brad, Chester, NC); On Patrol (Maurice, Brooklyn); Dream Of An Ex-Ranger (William, Newton, MA); Name (Lynn, Bronx); Costume (Mike, Cambridge); Tormented Star Of Morning (Maurice, Brooklyn); Patton ( Calvin, Massapequa, NY); Shush (Maurice, Brooklyn); REM Killer (Kirk, Lexington, KY); Requiem For An Insomniac (Maurice, Brooklyn); Dreams In Color (Lynn, Bronx); Mess Hall (Merrin, San Diego).

Vijay Iyer: compositions, piano, Fender Rhodes, programming and live electronics; Mike Ladd: lyrics, vocals, analog synthesizer; Maurice Decaul: lyrics, vocals; Lynn Hill: lyrics, vocals; Pamela Z: vocals with live processing, composition; Guillermo E. Brown: vocals and effects; Liberty Ellman: guitar; Okkyung Lee: cello; Kassa Overall: drums.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Matthew Shipp: Piano Sutras, Thirsty Ear, 2013

What if Matthew Shipp’s Piano Sutras were to appear in record stores and in the catalogs of online distributors out of the blue. And we were to say: Who is this pianist, Matthew Shipp?

Perhaps then, his music could be seen as itself, without history, as a beginning of contemporary jazz and improvised music.  For in this recording, Shipp establishes a new set of formulas, which embody just a mere wisp of meaning behind the Eastern religious word, sutra.

To lift one’s listening into a consciousness not involving what one already knows is difficult, perhaps. But it isn’t, if the piano music travels on a journey that is peaceful, far from arrogant, certain, strong and pure.

That Shipp simply plays straightforwardly, without any flourishes or superficial performance drama, becomes the vehicle for perceiving his language. The way he combines and integrates the notes into instinctively measured phrasing, takes them through shifting repetitions and non-perfunctory rhythm structures presents a grounded elaboration on how his mind-more like his soul-is shaped.

He works the entire keyboard, building ascending and descending cascades. His left hand is magnetized to the darkness of the lower register. But his right hand knows the quick treble tremolo, single high note and lullaby-like melodies. Harmonically, the music is perfect. Of course, dissonance falls through the cracks every once in a while. The twists and turns are necessary for the elocution of the familiar. The music is all original, fraught with Shipp-isms. As a mature painter seems to paint with the same array of strokes from painting to painting, so Shipp commandeers his own palette of chords, synchronicity, juxtapositions, dynamic, and codas throughout the music-scape.

Piano Sutras is one of a handful of solo albums; the first being, One. The distance between his first and Piano Sutras  is vast. When One was released in 2005, Shipp was a younger guy, beginning to narrow down his field of vision. Ironically, this field of vision is the cosmos. Piano Sutras aligns with that field of vision, but with more coherence and, paradoxically, relaxed detail than in any other solo effort. His musical statements are more honed and resultantly richer. This mode of development for an artist is not absolutely the way it always goes. Some artists can drop off their path, believing that anything they do after a certain point in their musical lives, is worthy because of their past accomplishments.  In contrast, Shipp possesses an unswerving integrity. Way back when, his music had unrelenting vitality within fewer frames; he was in search of greater landing strips. Now it speaks from a dense core, which is alive, breathing, unquestionably vigorous, yet markedly controlled.

The early twentieth century novelist, Virginia Woolf, once proclaimed in one of her diaries that she wanted to write never using adjectives, only verbs.  Shipp’s music fits within that category. Silence is struck only when it is warranted. Shipp’s work is proactive, even when he plays his versions of Coltrane’s Giant Steps or Shorter’s Nefertiti. There seems to be quality in each piece that gives Shipp promise for the future.

How our lives are understood is abstract, in forms which have nothing to do with the hard-wired technology behind the keyboard that is recording this article. It is in that abstract realm that Shipp operates. The realm is evocative of all that is spiritual, all that is without end.

copyright 2013 Lyn Horton

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano.

Track Listing: Piano Sutras, Cosmic Shuffle, Surface to Curve, Blue To A Point, Cosmic Dust, Giant Steps, Uncreated Light, Fragment Of A Whole, Space Bubble, Nefertiti, Angelic Brain Cell, Silent Cube, The Indivisible.

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