Holiday-themed CDs usually have as much to do with the sentiments of good will and earthly peace underlying the season as do greeting cards. Yet without – except in one case – mentioning the season, the following improvised music sessions demonstrate the intuitive harmony which the season should reflect.
Christmas Concert (Leo Records CD LR 520 www.leorecords.com), notes the occasion of its recording in St. Petersburg – December 15 – rather than Christmas. The Russian trio, trumpeter Vyacheslav Guyvoronsky pianist/percussionist Andrey Kondakov and bassist Vlaminir Volkov mix Nordic sensibility, ferocious technique and intuitive understanding of notated and improvised sounds into a program that’s fierier than a Yuletide log. Unlikely to replace White Christmas as a standard, Christmas Waltz consists of rumbles from inside the piano, scraping bass timbres and showy triplets from Guyvoronsky when he’s not enunciating half-heard phrases. Although there are references to the waltz’s romanticism, any fear that this tone poem will turn to mood music are put to rest as Guyvoronsky whinnies, Volkov slaps his strings and Kondakov fans low-frequency cadences. Mixing balalaika-like plucks, Impressionistic piano expositions plus tremolo lines from the trumpeter throughout, the group’s tour-de-force is the descriptive Arabesque. Dynamic and decorative without being showy, it is built on trumpet grace notes, swelling keyboard arpeggios and the bassist’s feline lope. Rhythmic and kinetic, the piece accelerates to a crescendo of staccato, splayed and fortissimo textures.
Another notable trio performance is that of Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner with New Yorkers, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi on Arms Spread Wide (No Business Records NBCD 5 www.nobusinessrecords.com). It’s obvious that there would be no Christmas – or Christianity – without Judaism, and the most affecting performance here, Hommage à Coco Shulmann, honours a German-Jewish guitarist and Holocaust survivor. His statement that “once a man learns to swing, he can never march again” not only describes much of the fine music here, but underlies the pacific message of Christmas. Musically, Grassi’s clanking strokes and Filiano’s pumping bass complement the jaunty narrative, during which Lerner moves from andante swaying to high-frequency key tickling with an angled bass line. Mercurial in her playing, exhibiting uneven rhythmic pulses and moving in-and-out of tempo with cascading tone clusters and singular clipped notes, Lerner treats the title tune lyrically and dramatically. Following an initial hunt-and-peck keyboard exploration, she works up to super-fast vibrations and dense, tension-filled runs. With Grassi’s press rolls and tom-tom strokes plus Filiano’s spiccato string-slashing, she eventually downshifts to gentle patterning.
In the West, December holiday sounds reflect the Christian and Jewish musical traditions, but further east Arabic and Islamic textures are exposed as well. One place that has long been the crossroads for many traditions, musical and otherwise, is Istanbul. Toronto guitarist Eric St-Laurent’s Dimensions d’Istanbul (Katzenmusik KM-01 (www.ericst-laurent.com) is an unbeatable portrait of the Turkish metropolis. St-Laurent, who frequently plays local clubs, composed and arranged this sonic travelogue aided by two Turkish musicians: percussionist Bikem Küçük and Turgay Hikmet who plays both keyboards and bass clarinet. Utilizing the textural and melodic allusions available, St-Laurent links his rapid guitar licks plus electronic processing to the others’ instrumental prowess which include tones from the clarinet-like mizmar, the dumbek or goblet drum and the 12-string cümbüş which combines banjo, mandolin and bass tones. With clarity and chromatic motions the guitarist makes a place for himself in this multiphonic bazaar. If formal melodies are exposed they’re shaded with synthesizer runs; while hoedown-styled twangs face stop-time, contrapuntal pitch slides from the Turkish instruments. On Yeralti Camii for instance, slinky electronic pulses meet hand drumming, while whistling and fluttering reed trills intercut guitar lines. Spectral and sequenced the CD evokes Istanbul’s shifting individuality.
Also unique are the sounds literally Self Made by Indian-born, Montreal resident Ganesh Anandan and Wuppertal, Germany’s Hans Reichel (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 192 www.actuellcd.com). Playing instruments of their own design – Anandan’s shruti stick or 12-string electric zither, plus marimba-like metallophone; and Reichel’s daxophone or bowed friction source – their dialogue is by turns mechanical, otherworldly, animalistic and satisfying. Vocal as well as visceral, the daxophone produces werewolf yowls and bel-canto vibrations with equal facility. Anandan matches these nasal outpourings with metallophone resonations that could come from tuned church bells or suspended kulingtang gongs. His facility with the shruti means that skittering rebounds are available to bond with Reichel’s dissonant shrieks for distinctive polyphony. Although recorded in March, the concordance Anandan and Reic