George by George

george michaelWith the one-year anniversary of the passing of George Michael coming up on Christmas Day, I came across an illuminating documentary on Showtime that the pop superstar was working on up until the time of his death at the untimely age of 53. What an irony that he joined two other colleagues in the musical stratosphere of his time — Michael Jackson and Prince — in leaving us at the half-century mark. (And with Whitney Houston also gone, that leaves Madonna as basically the sole survivor of that golden age of pop gods and goddesses.)

In the film, entitled Freedom (after one of his top hits and an epic video— more on that later), Michael is unflinching as he assesses his meteoric career, which began with the boy band Wham! before launching his solo phase with the album Faith in the late eighties. As a boomer who remembers the era quite clearly, I recall Michael as the always upbeat, always sexy performer who seemed to have more hits than anyone at the time. (In fact, Faith ended up selling more than 20 million copies).

But you come away with a very different impression after this film. An introspective and melancholy musical genius, Michael struggled with the loneliness very much at his core (one reason for the ever-present sunglasses) and only experienced real happiness with first love Anselmo Feleppa, whom he met in 1991 and who would succumb to AIDS in 1993, leaving the singer devastated. (Michael did not actually come out until 1998.) The event was followed by the death of his mother a year later, which threw the singer into an emotional tailspin from which only music could save him.

I discovered the album Older (released in 1994) as a result of this doc, being mostly familiar with the Michael masterpieces Faith and of course, the transcendent Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. Considered by Michael as his finest work, Older is very much a “healing” album, with many allusions to his relationship with Feleppa, especially on the amazing track “Like Jesus to a Child.” (I’ve had it on repeat for a few days now. It’s that good.)

So back to that Freedom! ‘90 video. It’s really a magical moment in pop culture, capturing the zeitgeist of an irreplicable epoch, anchored by Cindy and Christy and Linda and Naomi, the supermodels who needed no last names, recruited by Michael for a once-in-a-lifetime music video directed by David Fincher (The Social Network). Explosive, sensual and giddily glamorous, it’s also remarkable for its notably absent star. That’s save for one of his bomber jackets, which literally goes up in smoke — symbolic, of course, of Michael letting go of one stage of his career before embarking on the next. And shall we say, with a bang.

There are also prescient words from him as regards his legacy. How did he want to be remembered? “As a great singer/songwriter…from a period of time which I don’t think we’ll be seeing again. I don’t think youth culture will produce someone like myself or Madonna or Prince. I think it’s too fragmented now.

“So I’d like to be remembered as one of those last kind of big stars in the sense that there was a certain glamour to it.”

And that, by George, is certainly the case.

Sounds of the City

lang langWhen describing his jazz-fused masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue, created in 1924, composer George Gershwin once said, “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Almost 100 years later, the wildly popular pianist Lang Lang, whose latest offering, New York Rhapsody, was released on Sony Classical last month, recently told the Wall Street Journal that “When I hear Rhapsody in Blue, I see the Empire State Building somehow.”

And so one rhapsody begets another. Rhapsody in Blue is the centerpiece of a crossover album that offers homage to the city that never sleeps, with appearances by an array of artists from the fields of pop, jazz, and classical. Whatever one can say of the choice of selections, from an eclectic group of composers ranging from Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland to Danny Elfman, Lou Reed, and Jay-Z, they are not the expectedly clichéd (no “New York, New York” here, thankfully).

Lang had lofty goals as he went about preparing the album. “One of the greatest stories in the history of human creativity was written in this city – and I wanted to tell it,” he says in the liner notes. That story, an eventful sonic progression from jazz and Broadway all the way to punk and hip-hop, is an ambitious one, though the results here are a bit hit or miss.

On the hit side is a creative mashup of “Somewhere” (from Bernstein’s West Side Story) alongside Reed’s “Dirty Blvd,” featuring Lisa Fischer and Jeffrey Wright. Fischer’s vocal is probably the finest of the album, which also serves up a rare miss from Andra Day, who’s no competition for Alicia Keys on what’s become another signature Big Apple anthem, “Empire State of Mind.” Sean Jones struts a terrific trumpet on “Tonight” (also from West Side Story), but Madeleine Peyroux’s rendition of “Moon River” leaves some wistfulness to be desired.

The use of two little-known pieces by Copland – “Story of Our Town” and “In Evening Air”new york rhapsody – to open and close the album was the idea of Larry Klein, the Grammy-winning producer and brainchild behind the New York Rhapsody project. Both are less soaring than contemplative and capture the “pockets of peace and quiet beauty” that exist within the “vortex of New York City,” in Klein’s words.

Rhapsody in Blue is, of course, where Lang gets to show off his chops, along with the 76-year-old Herbie Hancock – still in fine mettle – and a spirited London Symphony Orchestra. A reprise of an abbreviated performance by the two at the 2008 Grammys, it features both a playfulness and grandeur that highlights two consummate pianists doing what they do best.

In a serendipitous bit of timing, the Chinese-born Lang, now 34, was recently chosen to be New York City’s first-ever “Cultural Tourism Ambassador,” the latest in a long list of plaudits since he burst on the classical music scene in 1999 as a prodigious teenager lionized for his brash and bold technique. Settling into superstardom can always become predictably complacent, so it’s nice to see him trying to expand the audience. It’s New York, Lang says, “that turned classical into this wonderful mess of new sounds and styles.” With New York Rhapsody, the experiment continues.

[Lang Lang’s New York Rhapsody will be featured on the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center on November 25.]

Max Richter: ‘Sleep Remixes’

max richter sleepMy first thought when I heard about British composer Max Richter’s eight-hour opus, Sleep, was of Andy Warhol’s avant-garde film of the same name, made in 1963, and depicting a man in various phases of slumber over a six-hour period. It was met with boos back then, but its conceptual quirkiness is now seen as yet another aspect of the Warhol genius.

Richter is considered a bit of a genius himself in contemporary classical music circles. I first became familiar with him via his masterful reworking of Vivaldi’s baroque chestnut, The Four Seasons, released on the Deutsche Grammophon label in 2012. In a piece for Blogcritics which appeared that year, this reviewer wrote that “His [Richter’s] magnificent melding of past and present shows again that great works of art are organic things, which, in respectful hands, can be reshaped into something fresh and wondrous and altogether new.”

Sleep is, as well, “an organic thing” – and most certainly altogether new. Its length is not coincidence; timed to synchronize with the average sleep cycle, Richter has called it “My personal lullaby for a frenetic world – a manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” It debuted last September in a London performance that lasted from midnight until 8 a.m., and was broadcast live on BBC Radio. (It also broke two Guinness World records: longest broadcast of a single piece of music, and longest live broadcast of a single piece of music.) At the premiere, audience members were provided with beds instead of seats, and encouraged to sleep through the broadcast. The nine-CD set, as well as the one-hour version, From Sleep, were both among the bestselling classical albums of 2015.

Richter consulted with the noted neuroscientist, David Eagleman, director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, when he embarked on the project. “For a long time people have wondered, ‘Can you influence the brain through music and speech while you’re asleep?’ The answer is, ‘sort of,’” Eagleman told The Daily Telegraph last year. “We’ve all had the experience of an external sound influencing the content of dreams.”

In the liner notes for Sleep, Richter says, “It’s a piece that is meant to be listened to at night. I hope that people will fall asleep listening to it, because the project is also a personal exploration into how music interacts with consciousness – another fascination for me.” (Interestingly, Richter also mentions The Goldberg Variations as providing inspiration; many believe the Bach masterpiece may have been commissioned by a patron who suffered from insomnia.)

For those who have neither the time or the money to invest in the full-blown affair, Sleep Remixes is another offshoot of the original work, offering edgy alternative tracks crafted by such artists as the Scottish indie band Mogwai and the English trio, Marconi Union. None stray too far from the overriding concept, nor from Richter’s deep roots in minimalism. “Path 5,” with the gossamer tones of soprano Grace Davidson as its underpinnings, recreates a delta sleep wave, and Mogwai provides a trenchant backbeat that could add a bit of tumult to any sweet dream. Digitonal’s Theo in Dreamland “Path 5” mix is more of a soft, yearning mélange, ethereal and otherworldly.

Of course, there are those who may approach all this as a sort of aural Ambien for the overly stressed. (I got a chuckle out of one of the Amazon customer reviews that frustratingly stated: “Did not help me sleep.”) But far from gimmickry, Sleep Remixes represents yet another milestone for one of classical music’s most original voices, whose creativity and imagination only serve to expand the boundaries of the genre.


Rebel Rebel

[A repost of a piece I wrote about David Bowie in 2014. A visionary musical hero and artist who never ceased evolving, a singular and revolutionary influence whose talent impacted so many aspects of the creative arts — what a void he leaves. Good night, Sweet Duke.]

david bowieI don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.
— David Bowie on his 50th birthday, 1997

The amazing creative ride that’s been the half-century career of David Bowie, now celebrated in what promises to be the blockbuster David Bowie Is exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, spectacularly proves – as if further proof were needed – how the cultural icon has always been remarkably true to that promise.

Bowie’s assorted artistic personas, from The Thin White Duke to Ziggy Stardust (outrageously androgynous at a time when the concept was still considered exotic) defined reinvention in a time before Madonna. But what really put him in a league of his own, beyond his ever-nonconformist individuality, was his extraordinary impact on so many fields beyond music – fashion, film, and the graphic arts among them.

Just because, I’ll throw in some fun facts I was unaware of (or didn’t remember) about Bowie that I ran across as I read about the exhibit. He changed his real name, David Jones, in 1965, to distinguish himself from Davy Jones, later of the wildly popular group, The Monkees. (“Bowie” came from the knife of the same name.) “Space Oddity” was actually timed to coincide with the 1969 landing on the moon. (Written, incidentally, when he was only 22.) And he also played The Elephant Man on Broadway in 1980, to much critical praise.

Beyond the trivia, and back to the music, I thought about my own favorite Bowie album, Station to Station, and particularly, its two alliteratively titled arias, “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” (the latter originally recorded by the crooner Johnny Mathis in 1957). In truth, relistening to the album in 2014 shows how far ahead of the pack Bowie was in 1976, at a time immediately prior to those lost years of pop music known as disco.

Possibly only Bowie could take the melodramatic lyrics of “Word on a Wing” (“Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing”) and send them soaring into art-rock territory. But he goes into full chanteuse mode with the intentionally over-the-top cover of “Wild is the Wind,” his vocal making you forget the mawkishness of such sentiments as “You touch me, I hear the sound of mandolins.” It is strangely unforgettable.

Though perhaps not the most famous tracks on Station, which also includes the chart-topping “Golden Years” and the classic “Stay,” the ballads are emblematic for me of Bowie’s chameleon-like talents – and reminders of what a versatile singer he truly was.

In another lyric from “Word on a Wing,” Bowie wrote: “I’m ready to shape the scheme of things.”

Which pretty much sums up his incredible career.

[David Bowie Is runs through January 4.]

All in “Jest”

adams absolute jestThere’s a rather oversized hint of an elephant in the room in the fanciful cover art for the world premiere recording of Absolute Jest by John Adams. His name is Ludwig van Beethoven.

Recorded live at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall in 2013, Absolute Jest, written in 2012, features the San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas, along with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The second piece, Grand Pianola Music, from 1982, was conducted by Adams himself earlier this year. Both are fascinating examples of a contemporary artist’s absorption of classical themes into a modern vernacular that is imaginative, witty – and original.

Adams, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his On the Transmigration of Souls about the 9/11 attacks, and whose Harmonielehre is considered by many as a masterpiece of Minimalism, has been ranked among the world’s most performed living composers. In the liner notes for the CD, classical music author Larry Rothe writes that Adams has “long been obsessed with Beethoven” and that “Adams is drawn especially to what he calls Beethoven’s wit and ‘ecstatic energy’ – the kind of generative pulse he pursues in his own music.”

Absolute Jest was created as a 25-minute scherzo – it should be noted that in Italian, the word literally means “joke” – and according to Adams, for Beethoven “a scherzo is this inspired sense of movement and happiness.” The piece itself begins on a rather otherworldly note of expectation before segueing into a seamlessly dynamic interplay between orchestra and string quartet – a mix that’s a “risky proposition,” the composer has commented. But it’s a sonic dance that definitely pays off here. Echoes of the late Beethoven string quartets, the “Waldstein” Sonata, and especially Symphonies 7 and 9, are interwoven with Adams’ signature driven style, particularly in the whirlwind coda, bursting with the “ecstatic energy” that Adams has always sensed in Beethoven’s music.

Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have shared a long history with Adams, and Grand Pianola Music, the second work on this recording, was commissioned in the early 1980s. Featuring members of Synergy Vocals and the dual pianos of Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin, Pianola is a mélange of brash touches, ranging from the volcanic piano arpeggios that recall Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, to the intentionally kitschy melody that overshadows the third movement, which is titled “On the Dominant Divide.” The latter is so named because “it rocks back and forth between tonic and dominant,” according to the composer.

As with the seminal work Harmonielehre, Grand Pianola Music also had its inception in a phantasmagoric dream – this one of huge Steinway pianos “screaming down the highway at 90 mph, [giving off] volleys of B-flat- and E-flat-major arpeggios,” as Adams describes it. Its audaciousness was not well-received at the time, but Grand Pianola Music has since become one of the most popular works from Adams’s early period.

“Another rite of passage that one must endure, if you’re to be a ‘classical’ composer, is to share the bed with one of the large guys,” Adams once wrote. In Absolute Jest, as well as Grand Pianola Music, he shares it with one of the biggest of them all. No doubt the great one himself would approve.


Timeless Troubadour

james taylorFOR TODAY’S GENERATION  of pop music fans, the initials “JT” may stand for Justin Timberlake. But for those of a certain age, they will always be synonymous with another JT: James Taylor, who – lo and behold – recently scored his first No. 1 album on the Billboard music charts at the age of 67 with Before This World, his first recording of original material since 2002.

Forty-five years after the iconic Sweet Baby James swept in the era of the singer-songwriter with all its melancholic introspection, Taylor’s music has grown into a celebration of simple pleasures, marked by peaceful acceptance and wonder at the overlooked gifts that often lie right in front of us.

Before This World is more a continuation than a culmination of a career that has now encompassed 17 studio albums, five Grammys, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. It doesn’t break any particularly new ground, which is just as it should be. Like a dependable comfort zone, it brings the best of Taylor’s signature laid-back style to songs that span a range of emotions.

Taylor (who critic Stephen Holden once described as the “Jimmy Stewart of folk rock”) has long had one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music, often underrated for the masterful sense of phrasing behind the folksy timbre. Its soft resonance still registers as strongly as ever.

There’s a lot that’s full circle for Taylor in Before This World. In his eponymously titled debut album from 1968, he sang about going to “Carolina in My Mind.” Here, he ventures cross-country to “Montana” and the same sense of longing for a quiet space that offers “wood for the woodstove and water for coffee/Somethin’ I can still understand.”

Also from that first album, the classic “Something in the Way She Moves” has evolved into “You and I Again,” about the happiness (“In the time we have here/Maybe we have it all”) that Taylor has found in marriage to third wife Caroline, to whom the song is dedicated.

Though the nostalgia can sometimes veer into the sentimental, as in “Angels of Fenway,” a catchy, though schmaltzy ode to citizens of Red Sox Nation, it’s more than made up for by the title track. It brings together many of the familiar themes in Taylor’s work, and is probably best captured in the lines:

The world is old and it will never last
Our share of joy is in the moment past

For Taylor fans, Before This World is a reassuring return of the timeless troubadour whose songs provided a large chunk of the soundtrack of their youth. For new audiences, it’s as good an introduction as any to one of the most enduring artists in pop music.

Welcome back, JT. It’s like you’ve never been gone.