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Minimalist Rock

Sonar, “Static Motion” (Cuneiform Records). Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner are guitar heroes. Or rather, the two, members of Swiss progressive/new music group Sonar, are guitar anti-heroes, and the band’s new effort, “Static Motion,” is a revolutionary shot across the bow for what we might consider to be the possibilities of modern day guitar music. Thelen, Wagner, drummer Manuel Pasquinelli, and bassist Christian Kuntner have crafted an anti-hero’s masterpiece here, an album that radically reinvents instrumental interplay in the (vaguely, at least) rock setting. How’d they do it? Well, by following a few rules that align themselves intellectually with what another minimalist of the highest order, Brian Eno, might call “oblique strategies.” In the case of Sonar, this meant that there would be no conventional “solos” on the album; that multiple time signatures would be employed simultaneously; that no effects would be used in the signal chains of guitarists Thelen and Wagner, a big change from Sonar recordings past; and that the compositions would be drawn solely from the harmonic possibilities offered by the tritone. (In layman’s terms, the tritone is comprised of three adjacent whole tones, which, to simplify further, means that the flatted 5th is part of the scale, much as it is in jazz and, say, the music of Robert Fripp.) The tritone methodology lends an exotic, occasionally ominous and disquieting feel to the pieces that comprise “Static Motion,” but this is not some instance of a musical theorem being worked out in real time in order to prove how clever the composers are. Rather, Sonar use this methodology in order to construct organic pieces that ebb, flow and breathe, based on the astute and apparently ego-less playing of the musicians themselves. The result is a collection that worms its way with equal stealth into both brain and heart – intellectual music that also pumps real blood. Within the defined framework of these compositions, the musicians find ample room in which to blur the lines between formalism and improvisation. With so many forms of contemporary music seemingly satisfied to simply regurgitate weary and weathered tropes, Sonar has defied the norm by crafting something singular and magical. ΩΩΩΩ (Jeff Miers)

New Music

Meredith Monk, Piano Songs performed by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker (ECM). What must be understood about Meredith Monk is that any performance of her work on disc and disc alone doesn’t entirely do her justice. But then one could say the same about a world of great composers, to be sure. Her work combines piano performance, dance, voice, minimalist music patterns, ritual and the sort of theater which is comfortable being called “Performance Art.” When played on the piano by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, a 1996 piece called “Folk Dance” is full of clapping and nonspecific shouts of “hey, hey-hey!” She tells us on this terrific disc of her two-piano music that she was “always drawn to 20th century music, particularly Mompou, Satie and Bartok” and began writing piano music in high school and college. What followed was music “for unaccompanied voice and then voice and organ” and then, piano music again beginning in 1972, “each a world with its own topography, texture and mood,” she says. The two-piano music here dates from 1971 to 2006. and it varies from the haunting 2001 “urban march (shadow)” to a 2006 minimalist “Totentanz” which sounds more like a demented postmodern Debussyan cakewalk than a satanic Lisztian adventure. In between, you even find some mad post-Cowell tone clusters and piano splatter in the seeming placidity of 1971’s “Tower.” “Directness, purity, asymmetry and, above all, transparency have always been important to me. The surface of the music is seemingly simple but the intricacy of detail and the combination of restraint and expressivity challenge the performer.” A Mozartean aesthetic by other means, then – all performed beautifully here. ∆∆∆∆ (Jeff Simon)

Jazz

Marc Ribot Trio, “Live at the Village Vanguard” (Pi). There is no other living jazz guitarist remotely like Marc Ribot. In truth, there never really has been, not even one of his major influences Sonny Sharrock. This is a sensational disc of avant-jazz guitar in live performance at the venerable Village Vanguard. With the great jazz bassist Henry Grimes (who goes back to vintage Sonny Rollins and Gerry Mulligan and beyond) and drummer Chad Taylor, Ribot has been performing with this trio for a decade. What they do here on compositions by John Coltrane (“Dearly Beloved,” “Sun Ship”), Albert Ayler (“Bells,” “The Wizard”) and, yes, a charming “I’m Confessin’ ” and sarcastic “Old Man River” for good measure, is the ne plus ultra of 21st century free jazz guitar. It was recorded in 2012 and, as his drummer says of Ribot “Marc is a force of nature. He never runs out of ideas and his creativity is boldness. When I play with Marc I never have to ask myself ‘What’s Happening now?’ There is an intent and purpose with every note he plays.” Some may not believe this is the same guitarist treasured by the likes of T-Bone Burnett, Diana Krall and Elvis Costello but it is. Unique. ΩΩΩ½ (J.S.)

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Art Pepper, Unreleased Art Vol. III, Live at the Winery, Sept. 6, 1976 (Widow’s Taste). Even in a jazz world as conspicuously beholden to the widows of jazz masters as ours has been for a couple of decades, no one quite approaches Art Pepper’s widow Laurie or Charles Mingus’ widow Sue for keeping their late husbands’ giant musical legacies alive. Here, from a 1976 gig at the Paul Masson Winery in Saratoga is Art Pepper, alternately burning the place down and singing gloriously through his alto saxophone with three superb, if lesser-known musicians from San Francisco – terrific pianist Smith Dobson, bassist Jim Nichols and drummer Brad Bilborn. The great alto saxophonist – in his era the reigning monarch of post-Coltrane West Coast bebop – is sensational all through this. Released at the same time by Laurie Pepper is her blisteringly candid new book “Art: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman” (APM Corp., 370 pages, $20 paper), a revelatory and ultra-smart book 10-years in the making that is the crucial companion to “Straight Life,” the masterpiece of compiled interviews she wrote with her husband that is one of the all-time necessary jazz memoirs. Much of her new book, like “Straight Life,” isn’t pretty, but Laurie Pepper has long been too good to prettify anything about her own life or the life of a man who created so much beauty. God Bless Laurie Pepper and long may she wave, now that Art’s been gone for more than three decades. ΩΩΩΩ (J.S.)

Classical

Schubert, Lazarus, Soloists and Kammerchor Stuttgart/Hofkapelle Stuttgart, Frieder Bernius, conductor (Carus). This is something you don’t hear every day, the oratorio “Lazarus,” begun but not completed by Franz Schubert. When it surfaced in the 19th century it was a sensation. One of its fans was Johannes Brahms. I had never heard it before, and was disappointed that it didn’t include more of that sublimity Schubert was capable of. Scholars speculate that he may have written it at the invitation of a Protestant church. The oratorio, though originally a Catholic art form, was associated in early 1800s Vienna more with Protestants, and perhaps the vehicle was foreign to Schubert, who was Catholic and more used to writing Masses. Or maybe Schubert was trying to please whoever commissioned the piece. In any case “Lazarus” sounded careful to me, not free and soaring the way Schubert usually sounds. It’s certainly lovely, though, and you sense the Schubertian spark in the orchestration, particularly in the touches of woodwinds. It’s a pity the piece leaves off when Lazarus dies, before Jesus raises him from the dead. It would have been fascinating to hear how Schubert handled his resurrection. The singers and ensemble take a tender and devoted approach to this forgotten music. ΩΩΩ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Mirian Conti, Piano Music of Argentina, Vol. 2 (Steinway & Sons). These are marvelous little salon pieces. The bittersweet numbers by Remo Pignoni, distributed throughout the disc, made me think of ragtime. Enrique Albano’s “Serie Argentina” mixes nostalgia with Latin dance rhythms. Pianist Mirian Conti brings out their wit and their poignancy. The Sonatina by Carlos Guastavino had shades of Impressionism. Other composers include Angel Lasala, Julian Aguirre, Horacio Salgan, Mariano Mores, Mario Broeders and Cayetano Troiani. There is so much to like in these 30 tracks, and pianist Conti brings it out with an easy grace. I like Steinway & Sons’ explorations of the offbeat. ΩΩΩ½ (M.K.G.)