Rudresh Mahanthappa, “Gamak” (ACT, to be released Jan. 29). There is no question that the finest continuing jazz series we’ve had in Western New York over the years has been Bruce Eaton’s “Art of Jazz” Series at the Albright-Knox Gallery. Among its incomparable series of triumphs was the 2008 appearance of one of the more phenomenally creative groups in all of jazz – the Indo-jazz group of Vijay Iyer featuring his friend, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Mahanthappa will return to the Art of Jazz series in the Albright-Knox on Jan. 27. Two days later this magnificent disc will be released of Mahanthappa’s new band which, says Mahanthappa, “incorporates Western forms of jazz, progressive rock, heavy metal, country, American folk, go-go and ambient while simultaneously engaging in the rich traditions of Indian, Chinese, African and Indonesian music.” Anyone who might think that an utterly absurd eclecticism which can’t help but cancel itself out should listen to the disc which is clearly among the great jazz discs of what is going to be an amazing month and quite likely a remarkable jazz year. Mahanthappa has been in Jack DeJohnette’s band in recent years and most of this music was written with his DeJohnette band associate David “Fuze” Fiuczynski in mind, for his microtonal guitar playing, whether it’s grounded in “Chinese or Indian or Arabic music and a lot of 20th and 21st century classical music” or “the rock/punk aesthetic that’s evident in his band The Screaming Headless Torsos.” Completing the band are bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss. The name Gamak derives from “gamaka,” the term for melodic ornamentation in South India. It refers here to ANY kind of melodic ornamentation, which means that this is a stellar achievement in what has long been in contemporary jazz a kind of New Music of Everything. Brilliant 21st century jazz. ∆∆∆∆ (Jeff Simon)
Jack DeJohnette Special Edition (ECM, four discs). A good argument could be made that in the five years this ever-changing band recorded the four discs in this box set – from 1979 to 1984 – Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition Band was the most continuously exciting band in jazz whether its personnel included – as it did at first – David Murray and Arthur Blythe or moved on to Chico Freeman and John Purcell and then trumpeter Bakida Carroll and tuba player Howard Johnson. Their albums were called “Special Edition” which introduced the band, “Tin Can Alley,” “Inflation Blues” and “Album Album.” It was widely suspected at the time that DeJohnette, the drummer, was among the most astonishing musicians in all of jazz – as in control of his variegated instrument, in his way, as Art Tatum had been in control of the piano keyboard. What ECM founder Manfred Eicher says now is that “Jack isn’t just a great drummer and a great musician – he is a great spirit. A session was always better for him to be a part of it … He has always been a creative initiator of ideas, of musical milieux and the Special Edition records were very forward-looking. With the albums collected together, I think, you can hear this more than ever.” I’ll say. This set is almost perfectly contiguous, in its way, with the Mahanthappa set reviewed above. ∆∆∆∆ (J.S.)
Otis Taylor, “My World Is Gone” (Telarc). Otis Taylor, at 64, is probably the most unusual and creative blues musician in America, at the moment. He came from Chicago by way of Denver, and there is a strange Western decoration to his earthenware blues that is never more pronounced than it is on this disc whose blues are explained by Taylor thusly: “The Native American’s traditional world has vanished and may never return” and “A Navajo man loses his horse from drinking too much. The horse was a very precious thing in the 1880s.” Because of the protracted chantlike nature of some of Taylor’s Native American blues, some people have taken to calling what he does “trance blues.” He is, among other things, dear to the heart of some jazz musicians, too, which is why you’ll find trumpet player Ron Miles showing up here on three cuts (one, a Taylor favorite called “Girl Friend’s House” is synopsized by Taylor this way: “After catching his wife in bed with her girlfriend, the husband decides he wants to join in.”) Always a bracing American figure on disc. ∆∆∆½ (J.S.)
Britten, Cello Symphony, Cello Sonata and Cello Suites performed by Alban Gerhardt, Steven Osborne and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze (Hyperion, two discs). Of all the great 20th century composers to compose significant music for solo cellist, Benjamin Britten ranks among the highest (altogether different, of course, was the haunting music for cello by Ernest Bloch, largely at the behest of Gregor Piatigorsky). The reason for so much first-rate Britten music for cello in various symphonic and chamber settings is, of course, his warm personal relationship with the great world-conquering Soviet cello virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich and his soprano wife, Galina Vishnevskya. When one numbers Rostropovich among the top rank of one’s musical friends, it would be almost sinful for a composer to be reluctant to write music for him, even if most of the music Britten was writing at the time was vocal music (influenced, in no small way no doubt, by the fact that Britten’s life partner was tenor Peter Pears). In effect, then, what 43-year-old cellist Alban Gerhardt is performing here with pianist Steven Osborne and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Manze is Britten’s music for Mstislav Rostropovich. The most interesting works, by far, on this two-disc set are not those that put the cellist in the company of the orchestra or pianist Osborne but rather performing the three unaccompanied solo cello suites so clearly influenced by Bach’s all-time greatest masterpieces for cello, his six unaccompanied cello suites. Britten’s, almost alone in 20th century music, seem to bear enough of an intimate relationship to Bach’s suites that they don’t suffer hopelessly from comparison. ∆∆∆½ (J.S.).
Maurice Steger, Una Follia di Napoli, Concerti & Sinfonie per Flauto, Anno 1725 (Harmonia Mundi, CD and DVD). Maurice Steger holds the title of world’s greatest recorder virtuoso. He is also utterly unique. Steger visited Buffalo about a year ago as part of the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series and I do not think it is a performance anyone will ever forget. Cute and puckish, dancing bowlegged as he plays, Steger – who grew up in Switzerland – has the personality that says, “Look at me.” He has an interesting theme for this album. It zeroes in on a time and place – Naples in 1725 – that was central to the history of flute and recorder. It was in that year that a flutist with the rock star name of J.J. Quantz went to Naples and inspired the elderly Scarlatti to rise above his aversion to wind instruments and write a few sonatas for flute. Scarlatti’s music is here in addition to music by Leonardo Leo and other Italian composers in that era. An accompanying DVD has interviews with Steger and, more importantly allows you a look at him performing. It is needed. If you can’t see Steger in action, you are missing most of the fun. I was surprised, though, how much of his capricious personality did come through in the music, which presents him accompanied by a chamber orchestra. Once you have glimpsed Steger, you can just picture it. Though you probably don’t want to take it all at once, this is a fascinating gambol through Baroque history. ∆∆∆ (Mary Kunz Goldman)