Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Terje Isungset's Ice Music at the Cedar: Concert review

When: Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 • Where: The Cedar Cultural CenterWho: Terje Isungset, ice instruments; Marie Kvien Brunvoll, voice, ice chimes, electronics

Terje Isungset by John Whiting
He played instruments made of ice; chimes, a xylophone, drums, and horns. She vocalized, mostly wordlessly, her voice rising high and sweet, looped and layered and reverbed. Both wore hooded parkas indoors; he wore gloves or mittens. Many of the more than 200 people who came to hear them kept their coats on.

Norwegian musician Terje Isungset and singer Mari Kvien Brunvoll may never play a music festival in Havana or Trinidad, but Minnesota was a good place for them to come; it’s winter here, and Bill Covitz, the ice engineer who carves and crafts Isungset’s instruments (a new set before each concert), was able to find the ice he needed in one of our local lakes. Lake ice sounds better than machine ice, and some lake ice sounds better than other lake ice. “There is only some lakes that have sound,” Isungset told NPR earlier this week, “and even if you find the lake there might be just a few pieces that will have a good sound.” All of the instruments are temporary. They melt, crack, and change shape during the performance. Pieces break off and fall to the ground. Even when played outdoors in the cold, the ice horns are changed by the warmth of Isungset’s breath. Trained as a jazz musician, Isungset can improvise, which is probably Thing One when ice is your medium.

Mari Kvien Brunvoll by John Whiting
Is it music? Yes. Maybe not for everyone; a few people at the Cedar left after half an hour. (Perhaps because the concert started late; setting up instruments hell-bent on returning to a liquid state is a challenge.) It's ethereal and otherworldly music, arctic and hypnotic. Most is percussive, ice hit by ice sticks or mallets. Careful miking catches and amplifies what begin as delicate sounds. Icebergs boom while calving, but small blocks being struck don’t have a lot of volume. It must be fun to be Asle Karstad, Isungset’s sound man.

The horns are especially haunting. Isungset played three at the Cedar: large and slightly curved, smaller and more tightly curved, and straight, with a wide flared bell at the end. They sounded like alpenhorns, like whales singing, like ships at sea, like the wind. The “iceophone” (ice xylophone) sounded like a kalimba/mbira (African thumb piano) on steroids. The ice chimes clinked and clanked. The small drum made a small, hollow sound, and the large one on the floor made a big sound, like a bass drum in a drum kit, like a giant’s heartbeat. Sometimes a struck piece of ice rang with a crystalline hum that hung in the air and slowly faded. Isungset is especially fond of ice that has this kind of voice, like a living thing. He also crunched ice underfoot and scraped it, rhythmically and repetitively.  

Isungset and Brunvoll performed for more than an hour, maybe longer, until they had to quit. The large blocks were dripping onto the stage and the horns had become unplayable. Afterward, Isungset handed instruments and bits of instruments to audience members. “Thanks to nature for giving us these instruments,” he said earlier. And, “It’s quite amazing that water could sound like this. You can drink this instrument.” Music sends its own powerful messages, but Isungset’s music goes deeper, telling us how precious water is, how useful and essential, how long it has been on our planet. Coincidentally (or not), the Minneapolis StarTribune published an article that day on how Minnesota is draining its water supplies.

Isungset has been making his Ice Music for 13 years, but this is the first time he has brought it to the US. He played two sold-out concerts at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on Friday, Feb. 23, then came here. Those appear to be his only US dates. Thanks to the Cedar for giving us the chance to hear this unique and remarkable artist.


•  “Turning a Glacier Into a Tuba: Ice Music from Norway” (audio; heard on All Things Considered)
•  “Iceconcert live on TV – 2012. Terje Isungset & Mari Kvien Brunvoll” (video; similar to what we saw at the Cedar) 
•  “‘Ice Music,’ made from frozen instruments” (video from the Minneapolis StarTribune)
•  "From an ice block, musician carves his marimba" (article with video from the St. Paul Pioneer Press)
•  “For Norway’s Terje Isungset, music is carved from ice” (photos from Minnesota Public Radio of the instruments being made for the Cedar concert)

All photos by John Whiting.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Buckley's hat

Here's bassist James Buckley, looking cozy yet cool in his Hats for Cats hat.

Hats for Cats. Keeping jazz heads warm since 2007.

Buckley stopped by last week to borrow ice fishing supplies from HH. Something about an Icehouse photo shoot? To be honest, I didn't know HH had any ice fishing supplies.

Wadada Leo Smith seeks funding to complete & premiere new work

Wadada Leo Smith at the Weyerhauser Memorial Chapel,
Macalester College, June 10, 2012
Today we received the following press release:


Trumpeter /composer/musical innovator Wadada Leo Smith is seeking $17,000 to complete and premiere a new work for his highly acclaimed civil rights opus Ten Freedom Summers. The new work, entitled The March on Washington D.C.- August 28, 1963, will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. This will be the 22nd composition of Ten Freedom Summers, which the trumpeter has written over the past 34 years and calls "one of my life's defining works."   To donate to the project, log on to http://www.usaprojects.org/project/ten_freedom_summers by Monday, March 11, 2013.

The new work-composed for quintet, along with string quartet and harp-will be performed by the Golden Quartet, the Pacific Coral Reef Ensemble, the Flux String Quartet and video artist Jesse Gilbert. Through the USA Projects funding, Smith plans to premiere this new work at Roulette in Brooklyn, NY in May 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this historic event. The funding will help Smith to improve the theatrics of the performance, which would include additional high-definition screens for video projections, and to show the Civil Rights Movement in a new light. 

A kaleidoscopic, spiritually charged collection of compositions inspired by the struggle for African-American freedom, Ten Freedom Summers was released on CD on the Cuneiform label in May 2012. It has been heralded as "his masterpiece," (Barry Witherden, BBC Music Magazine), "the veteran trumpeter's defining statement," (Mike Hobart, Financial Times), "the most challenging (and emotionally rewarding) release of 2012," (Bret Saunders, Denver Post), "stirringly beautiful Š an astounding aesthetic achievement." (Michael Casper, Oxford American), "an emotional and intellectual luxury, a chance to commune with greatness," (Josh Langhoff, Pop Matters), and "the work of a lifetime by one of jazz's true visionaries. Š Triumphant and mournful, visceral and philosophical, searching, scathing and relentlessly humane, Smith's music embraces the turbulent era's milestones while celebrating the civil rights movement's heroes and martyrs." (Bruce Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery).

Composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, whose roots are in the Delta blues, is one of the most boldly original figures in American jazz and creative contemporary music, and one of the great trumpet players of our time. Born and raised in Leland, Mississippi, Smith start playing trumpet in R&B bands, encouraged by his stepfather, blues guitarist Alex Wallace. By the mid 1960s, he had gravitated to Chicago's burgeoning avant-garde jazz community where he was part of the first generation of musicians to come out of Chicago's AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music). Smith formed the Creative Construction Company together with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins and collaborated with a dazzling cast of fellow visionaries including Muhal Richard Abrams, Richard Davis and Steve McCall. Early in his career, Smith invented an original music notational system called Anhkrasmation, which was radical for its time and remains the physical and philosophical foundation of his oeuvre. 

Since the early 1970s, Smith has performed and recorded mainly with his own groups. He currently leads four principal ensembles: Mbira, a trio with pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and drummer Pheeroan akLaff; the Golden Quartet, his highly celebrated group that now includes Anthony Davis, John Lindberg and Pheeroan akLaff; Organic, a larger ensemble that utilizes instrumentation consisting primarily of electric string instruments; and the Silver Orchestra, which explores Smith's music for large ensemble. He has released nearly 50 albums under either his own or his bands' names on ECM, Moers, Black Saint, Tzadik, Pi Recordings, TUM, Leo, Intakt and Cuneiform, among others. In addition to the 4-CD Ten Freedom Summers, he also recently released Ancestors, a duo CD with Louis Moholo-Moholo on the TUM label.

Smith has been awarded grants and fellowships from the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Chamber Music America with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the FONT (Festival of New Trumpet Music) Award of Recognition, Southwest Chamber Music funded by the James Irvine Foundation and the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation, the MAP Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others.  An esteemed educator and music theorist, Smith has been on faculty since 1993 at Cal Arts, where he is director of the African American Improvisational Music Program and has profoundly influenced several generations of artists.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Bryan Ferry Orchestra: “The Jazz Age” CD Review

Imagine you’re digging through a dusty bin of LPs. You find one with an interesting cover, take it home, put it on your turntable (because you still have a turntable), and suddenly you’re in a 1920s speakeasy. You’re in a club in Kansas City or New Orleans. No, wait: you’re at a party on Jay Gatsby’s lawn in West Egg.

Except the songs aren’t by Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington or Count Basie. They’re by Bryan Ferry. And you realize you’re drinking Jay Gatsby’s gin while listening to “Avalon” and “Slave to Love.”

Ferry’s latest album, “The Jazz Age,” out Feb. 12, is surprising for him and for jazz. Ferry doesn’t sing. He doesn’t play standards, which most jazz artists do (and Ferry did in 1999’s “As Time Goes By”). He doesn’t play contemporary pop songs in the style of modern jazz, which more jazz artists are doing these days, broadening the canon for those who don’t know or care about “Body and Soul” or “Caravan.” He doesn’t bring older songs forward and reinvent them with improvisation or dissonance, hip-hop or electronics. He takes songs from his own catalog, strips out the lyrics, clothes the melodies in rhythms and arrangements inspired by the 1920s, and gathers an orchestra of mostly British musicians steeped in swing to play them.