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Positive Feedback ISSUE 27
september/october 2006


Notes of an Amateur October, 2006 - Part I
by Bob Neill


Keith Jarrett, Concert at Carnegie Hall. Keith Jarrett, solo piano. ECM Records.

While no one I know has ever come up with a useful definition of either jazz or classical music, some of us lapsed Platonists are still confident that we know what each is when we hear it. One of the 'cases' that has always persuaded me that my confidence is secure is the failure of Third Steam (jazz/classical fusion) music: the failure of the two species to mate and produce anything recognizably musical. With one notable exception, I have not heard a note of 'third stream' music that works. It all sounds confused and lost to me, stray sounds searching for one of two homes and hopelessly marooned between both.

This is a subject that almost always comes with Jarrett. And listening to his new 'live' Concert at Carnegie Hall reminds me he is the exception. Music that exists in these two musical worlds simultaneously or sometimes drifting back and forth between them is essentially what Jarrett is. This brilliant composer/musician does not persuade me that my confidence in the distinct reality of the two kinds of music has been misplaced. But it reminds me that it is a far subtler matter than we are used to considering it. Way subtler. Some suggest there is something like a continuum that runs from one kind to the other; but listening especially to the second disc in this set, I would say its more like rays spreading out all over the place! Jarrett may be the only musician who is truly comfortable—and successful—working this area where one form of music almost imperceptibly turns into the another; and where it can turn into a lot of other things as well. Jarrett lets all of his musical influences—jazz, classical, blues, popular ballads—flow in and out of one another, such that where we are, once we stop asking such stupid questions, ceases to matter.

I have never much liked Jarrett's classical recordings—Bach, Handel, and Shostakovich, all of which seem to lose the heart of the composers' music in overly respectful technique. But his best 'many-stream' solo recordings are unique and powerful music. And there is no escaping that they exist within the overlapping idioms of jazz and classical, and sometimes those of the whole world of popular music as well.

Clearly, Jarrett's particular rays originate in the world of jazz. Jazz is his home, which is why his purely classical performances feel so off; and why even his ballads have at least an implicit swing. But he is a jazz musician who understands better than anyone where jazz can go, how far it can reach beyond its usual territory, without losing its particular grasp of human experience.

I wanted to listen to Jarrett again at this point in my musical life because I have spent so much time recently with his peer, Ganzalo Rubalcaba. Rubalcaba moves in the opposite direction. Where Jarrett as soloist is inclined to explore jazz as an engine for meditation, the Cuban searches out jazz's capacity for passion. Even at his most abstract, on his own solo album, Rubalcaba is about the beating of the human heart: his music is utterly grounded in the body. Jarrett is freer. He can be passionate, impressionistic, lyrical, sentimental, expressionistic—expressionistic as much recent modernist classical music is. He is more comprehensive, more complex than Rubalcaba. And in the midst of such complexity, he can smile and then play a lyric phrase that pulls it all closer to the heart of jazz, from where we then sense it as never really strayed very far. When pure classical music does this, it sickens us a little as it breaks down its decorum and goes soft on us. That Jarrett's turns of this kind please and satisfy us tells us he has never really left jazz: he has just conquered some new territory for it. Oops, there's the Platonist talking again.

Jarrett has not always been successful in his solo concerts. He usually depends on inspiration as he improvises his way in and out of melodic and developmental explorations of musical ideas—and while his inspiration usually pays great dividends, it also occasionally fails him in ways it does not fail the more grounded Rubalcaba. In this set, he breaks the performance proper down into ten segments running between five to seven or eight minutes, each in a somewhat different musical mood than its immediate predecessor. This approach makes for a tighter show but unfortunately, it also provides too many opportunities for the enthusiastic audience that just can't seem to sit on its hands. I understand he was less than happy about this and I am surprised ECM didn't edit some of it out.

The ten-section main program is fine vintage Jarrett. The encores, from the balladic side of his musical mind, are equally compelling in their way, serving to remind us that this man can go just about anywhere he likes and succeed there.


Music@Menlo Live: Beethoven, Center of Gravity. Recordings from the Menlo Music Festival, 2005.

They're back! David Finckel's and Wu Han's Menlo Musical Festival, which has produced two extremely fine sets of recordings in 2003 and 2004, is back with its 2005 edition. In this festival, Beethoven was the thematic center; but to make the program's point, performances also included works by Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Weber, and Schumann, as well as the Center of Gravity himself. As a set of four recordings, available singly or as a full set, this is a rich and enormously appealing collection of musical performances. As before, the sound is superb, thanks to continuing recording engineer Da-Hong Seetoo. And this year, the recordings, under the strict supervision of Seetoo, are on CD rather than CDR. And, as the Music@Menlo web site makes clear, both the 2003 and 2004 sets have been remastered by Seetoo and transferred to CD as well. Packaging is also spruced up a bit, for those who are about these things. The former 'homemade' look is utterly gone.

As I've said in reviewing earlier sets in this series, while the musicianship and sound strike me as extremely fine, what really sets the Music@Menlo recordings apart are the freshness and energy that clearly come from their being 'live.' As any musician will tell you, the state of mind in 'live' performing contrasted with sitting before mikes and a recorder is huge. "Live" they must be absolutely in the moment: the performance is now and is disappearing even as it is played. It is once and for all, with no opportunity for fixes. This also means that any missteps caused by 'going for it' will not be there for posterity to wince over, so focus and intensity can be at a premium.

But in 'live' recordings we have it both ways! The performances are for broke and they are for posterity. In the Music@Menlo recordings so far, this has been a pure benefit. (Who knows if there were any blown performances that never made it onto CD? Not us!) Yesterday, it was a lively performance of Mendelssohn's Quintet for Strings, Opus 87, full of polish and panache. This is the Mendelssohn who wowed his contemporaries and who, as the thematic focus of the series suggests, is one of Beethoven's heirs who was not overwhelmed by him but rather inspired to make something new from his example. Musicians are Ian Swenson and Joria Fleezanis, violins; Cynthia Philips and Geraldine Walther, violas; and David Finckel, cello.

On this same CD is Beethoven's Septet for Winds and Strings, Opus 20. Joseph Silverstein, violin; Walther, viola; Ronald Thomas, cello; Charles Chandler, bass; William Vermuelen, French horn; Dennis Godburn, bassoon; and Anthony McGill, clarinet. And here, for all of your audiophiles, it's not just the freshness and elan of the performance that pulls us in but the clarity and natural warmth of the recording. It is not the kind of sound that draws attention to itself but rather something we notice in passing, as we hear each of the instrumental voices singing along as a fully realized contributor to the seven-voice chorus. This is absolutely great engineering.

Today it is another stunning disc with Claude Frank, best known to many of us as the pianist in the father/daughter duo who made the treasured Brahms and Beethoven violin & piano sonata recordings, playing Beethoven's Sonata No. 32, Opus 111. Radiant and revealing with a wonderfully subtle sense of touch throughout. This is one of the most appealing performances of this sonata I have heard. Accompanying it is the beloved Brahms Quintet for piano and strings, Opus 34, with Wu Han, pianist; Fleezanis and Swenson, violins; Cynthia Philips, viola; and Ralph Kirschbaum, cello. What strikes me most about this performance is its clarity, a quality that Brahms does not always get from musicians! This is the Brahms the composer himself most valued – the nineteenth century composer who looks lovingly back on the eighteenth. Again, the quality of the recording contributes greatly to the beauty of this production.

Other musicians who perform in the set:

Derek Han, piano
Gilbert Kalish, piano
The Miro String Quartet!
Christopher Nomura, baritone (in Schumann's Dichterliebe)

This should give you a pretty clear sense that the standards set by the Music@Menlo 2003 and 2004 series have been met easily. If anything, the recording quality has been bettered: while I loved the sound of the earlier sets, there is an almost analogue sense of ease and gentleness to these new releases the others did not have. I am eager to hear what 2003 and 2004 sets sound like in their remastered versions.

Note: These recordings are only available through the Music@Menlo web site, for $17 each plus $2.20 shipping and handling. The four-disc set is $60 plus $2.20.

Another Note: I listened to each of the four CDs right out of the slip case and then, as I do with all CDs these days, treated them with Nanotec Systems Intron Protect 8500 CD/DVD Coating Liquid. While they all sounded excellent untreated, there is no denying the added resolution that this latest elixir brings to the proceedings. I have used Optrix, two versions of Auric Illuminator, and RealityDisc in the past; and while each improved the sound of CDs noticeably, Nanotec 8500 to my ears does the best job of making CDs better versions of what they already are, without putting an identifiable stamp on them.

System used for these auditions: Audio Note CDT 2 II transport and Dac 4.1 Balanced Signature, Audio Note M6 preamplifier and Neiro amplifier, Audio Note AN-E/SPx SE speakers. Cabling is Audio Note Sogon, AN-Vx, and SPx.

Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive- Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, Manley Labs, and JM Reynaud, among others.