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Russia and Riverside: Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, Kronos Quartet album reviews

Charlie Haden and Hank JonesTwo album reviews for this week. First a collaboration by two master jazz men and second a classical album dedicated to a Russian composer I know next to nothing about.

Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, Come Sunday, EmArcy

Late great pianist Hank Jone’s last album is this, a series of duets with Charlie Haden celebrating classic hymns and spirituals. This is clearly a true collaboration with both musicians working together and adding their voice, sometimes with Jone’s piano stating the melody and sometimes only adding subtle accompaniment to Haden’s bass. The album is, start to finish, filled with a dedicated, understated and contemplative grace and reverence, and seems something of a missed opportunity. Not to take away anything from the simple beauty of some of these songs, but many of these renditions feel sort of confined to me. I would have loved to hear these two master improvisers open up just a bit. The material is best when at least one of the musicians has a chance to really explore the material, as on my favorite track “Down by the Riverside” or one the title track. But even in these instances, the songs are short, the longest clocking in at 4:28, and don’t leave much room for real exploration. Many of the songs are rendered entirely straight, with no improvisation or real interpretation at all. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman”, for instance, sounds like what I imagine it sounds like out of every church with a piano and a hymnal.

Not to belittle the sense of reverence the songs inspire, but the hands of the musicians are so subtle sometimes as to be unnoticeable. While “Down by the Riverside” is a truly engaging number on which Haden really swings, “God Rest Ye…” is a track that does not inspire repeated listens. Far be it for me to presume to tell these musicians much more talented than I how to do their jobs, but I don’t think the reverence for the gospel spirit and the sort of exploration that leads to a more involved listening experience are mutually contradictory. As an example that also includes Charlie Haden on the bass (although, it’s a bad vehicle for Haden, since he is mostly confined to playing vamps) I would present Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet playing “De Drums” from the album ‘Fort Yawuh’. (which I can’t seem to upload) Jarrett has been accused of trying to mimic the crossover appeal of Ramsey Lewis, but his improvisation over the vamp keeps the gospel spirit intact while working his way around the piano and giving the audience something to really think about.

Kronos Quartet, Music of Vladimir Martynov, Nonesuch

Kronos quartet is a classical string quartet with an eye for the truly interesting pieces. I know them not only for their renditions of relatively traditional string quartet repertoire but also from albums dedicated to Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk tunes and 2009’s ‘Floodplain’, an album dedicated to the music of areas that experience frequent flooding which included works from India, Egypt, Iraq, Serbia and other disparate places. This spectacular album is, as the name suggests, dedicated to the music of Vladimir Martynov. This album is a gem, which works as a cohesive whole as well. The opening piece, ‘Beatitudes’ is sweet and lovely. Next, over 23 minutes we hear  “Schubert-Quintet (unfinished)” in two parts. It is not actually a work of Schubert’s, but is modeled after Schubert’s Quintet in C major, but seen through the lens of Martynov’s very modern sensibility. The first part utilizes forceful chords followed by moody, sustained spaces, repeating and probing into a few ideas over and over again. The last work “Der Abschied”, written as a memorial for Martynov’s father, starts off slow, somber and reflective. At around the ten minute mark it starts to pick up and soon becomes much sweeter and more endearing, but with still a hint off the reflective tone. What I would give for that sort of memorial….

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