[Nothing Too Fancy]
Oh, the strange case of Umphrey’s McGee, the jam band that also wants to be a metal band and a classic rock band and a prog-rock powerhouse, and often, attempts to be all of these within the space of a single song. Where does a band like this end up, in this glorious era of genre cubby-holing and rampant commodification?
Well, on their label, naturally, making an album their way, on their dime and in their time.
And though the broader music industry wouldn’t have the slightest clue how to “market” such an eclectic and ambitious band, the members of Umphrey’s McGee knew just what to do. They spent some 15 years touring like crazy, and letting the fans who fell beneath the band’s spell – a spell cast by live performances that can only be described as epic – do the legwork for them. Umphrey’s is a band whose reputation rose via word of mouth. The converts made converts out of others.
Live performance made Umphrey’s what it is, but studio work – particularly 2004’s “Anchor Drops” and 2009’s “Mantis” – suggested what it might become as it moved from youthful frenzy into seasoned maturity. If those earlier albums hinted at a possible future, then “Similar Skin” delivers that future in a manner most emphatic. The thing is a sprawling masterpiece, a collection of songs crammed to the brim with the band’s greatest gift – its ability to marry jaw-dropping virtuosity to imaginatively crafted songwriting.
“Similar Skin” commences with one of several prog-rock epics, in the form of “The Linear,” a song that has been in the band’s live repertoire since 2010, but one that is granted its full apotheosis here. Primary vocalist Brendan Bayliss has a voice that sounds like it belongs in a power-pop band – Jellyfish, perhaps – and that’s part of the magic, one born in the commingling of styles that might seem incongruous, on paper at least.
Bayliss and guitarist Jake Cinninger craft immaculate interplay, blending muted, staccato figures with soaring and grandiose solo work, or even reverting to classic power-chord rock, of the sort that propels the deceptively buoyant “Cut the Cable” forward.
But it’s with its epics – the complex metrics of the title tune; the prog-metal burner “Little Gift”; the dense and knotty “Educated Guess”; the multilayered, unfolding movements of “Puppet String,” which are held together by an insanely catchy slap-bass figure courtesy of Ryan Stasik – that UM truly proves itself to be one of the most interesting progressive-jam bands going.
Whoever said jam bands can’t make great studio albums was a liar. UM has made at least three of them, and “Similar Skin” is the best of that bunch.
– Jeff Miers
La Commedia: A Film Opera in Five Parts
[Nonesuch, two discs plus DVD]
Here is, for now, post-modern artistic ambition incarnate – a 2008 collaboration of extraordinary composer and avant-troublemaker Louis Andriessen, now 75, and film director Hal Hartley on a “film opera” based on Dante’s cornerstone literary masterwork with interplated texts from the Song of Songs and Lord knows what. It all ends with a children’s choir singing, in Dutch (translated), “These are all my notes for you/and if you do not get it/You won’t get The Last Judgment/You’ll never get it ever.” (The music is performed by soloists and the Asko and Schonberg Ensembles conducted by Reinbert de Leuww.)
Here is a composer, then, ending a giant adaptation of “The Divine Comedy” (in what annotator Timor Andre calls “a cycle of five mini-cantatas”) and treating it as it might have been a comedy after all.
Which is far indeed from the omnidirectional eclecticism of the music you’ll hear from the vehement and often political composer who is, most assuredly, no minimalist anymore. Compared to this whose “stylistic frame of reference,” said the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, “is staggeringly wide ranging from Gregorian chant to what might be called Satanic Broadway … Heaven and hell run together in a wild continuum,” homegrown ex-minimalist composers like John Adams and Philip Glass seem like apostles of neo-expressionist blandness.
Annotater Timo Andres – a composer and pianist of no small brilliance – writes “it is perhaps not music at all, but the spirit of Hieronymous Bosch which most strongly pervades ‘La Commedia’, particularly his ‘Garden of Earthly Delights. … Both revel in the bizarre, the obscene and the grotesque.” And no small beauty and power along with it.
Give Andres’ eloquence the last word on this: “Andriessen’s music is something of a Boschian creature itself, its own peculiar form assembled from the ‘wrong’ parts of other music.”
– Jeff Simon
Lenny Pickett with the UMO Jazz Orchestra
When producer Lorne Michaels wanted the house band of “Saturday Night Live” to play music that resembled Junior Walker’s “Shotgun,” the New York City tenor player who wound up blowing America away for years was Lenny Pickett. The music he played launched the style of Junior Walker into another orbit altogether.
What few now remember is that Pickett also was the tenor saxophonist on the first record by Bobby Previte.
This is one of the great, wildly expressive jazz and R&B tenor saxophonists, all too often heard in circumstances in service to everyone but himself. Not here. From the opening, with its phenomenally precise overblown falsetto notes on “Busted Again” to its finale, a new version of Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip,” Pickett is out to remind us all of just how rich and varied his musical life has been, when he wasn’t the saxophone of “Saturday Night Live.”
He’s backed up here by the Finnish UMO Jazz Orchestra and, as he puts it, “I never imagined that I would make a big band jazz album.” And if you never imagined it would be as witty and good as this, you’ll have a lot of company.
He’s a terrific saxophone player, caught in the act of being reasonably terrific here with some European jazz musicians enjoying it to pieces.
1930s Violin Concertos
[Canary Classics, 2 CDs]
Gil Shaham is sort of family in Buffalo. Some of us remember him from when he was a kid – well, about 20. He came here with his sister, pianist Orli Shaham, and they sat around Kleinhans Music Hall mixing and mingling with other music fans their age.
He has given several concerts with the BPO, most memorably the opening night concert in 2009, when he played Sarasate’s “Carmen” Fantasy and showed off not only his virtuosity but a unique, zany humor he seemed to have more recently acquired. His appearances always are a joy, and this recording, featuring Shaham with a variety of orchestras, reflects his exuberance and sense of romance and fun.
The Barber Violin Concerto is the gem of the disc and Shaham gives it all the warmth it calls for. The rest of the collection are concertos you don’t hear as often: Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D; Britten’s Violin Concerto in D Minor; Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s “Concerto funebre”; and Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel” (the angel being Manon, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, who died at 18). Needless to say, this thorny music from a turbulent era does not all have the overt charm of the Barber, but it could not ask for a better advocate than Shaham. He is like the Pied Piper; we would follow him anywhere.
– Mary Kunz Goldman