If there is any way to distill the wide-ranging artistry of Matana Roberts, it might be to focus on the ways in which she eludes definitions. The Chicago-raised composer, improviser, and alto saxophonist offers a friendly yet confidant smile as she explains, “Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the role text and stories frequently play in Elliot Cole’s compositions, but the core of his inspiration turns out to trace more of a pendulum swing: insider vs. outsider, text-rooted vs. pure sound, composer vs. performer, a musician dipping his toes into a wealth of styles and methods along the way.
If anything is clear in the first few moments of Mariel Roberts’s debut CD Nonextraneous Sounds, it’s that this will not be just a polite collection of unremarkable wallpaper works for solo cello. Actually, unless you are already prepared for what’s coming, it’s not even completely clear that a cello is what’s at the forefront of the mix.
I’ve long been a fan of Gabriel Kahane’s songwriting. With February House, he has taken the strengths of his previous projects—smart lyrics, even smarter compositional choices—and played them out across a larger storyboard, creating distinct voices for his characters that still solidly carry the attractive marks of his own.
In conversation, Evan Chambers conveys his ideas using words in a strikingly similar fashion to how he delivers them in music: honestly, intelligently, with neither fear of open emotion nor of making a sharper point than his laid-back demeanor might at first lead you to expect. As he speaks about his familial roots in folk music, his love of poetry, and the responsibility he feels as an artist to acknowledge broader social, political, and environmental challenges, a portrait of the composer emerges that reveals again how incompletely shorthand genre descriptors and professional biographies capture art and artist.
There are plenty of unique albums out there, of course, but San Francisco-based Common Eider, King Eider’s Sense of Place is a particular standout in this regard. The unusual packaging of the project lends an air of mystery to the proceedings, like receiving keys and a map to an adventure of unknown parameters ahead.
With Scorpion Tales, Duo Scorpio doesn’t require you set aside all of your wedding prelude and garden party images of the harp before you hit play, but they are going to stretch those sonic ideas out of whack once things get going. This may be the sum distillation of the work included on this album—it doesn’t build barriers out of repertoire, but it does open quite a few windows in the library.
When Lembit Beecher was named composer-in-residence with the Opera Company of Philadelphia (in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group of New York) in 2011, he didn’t bring a large portfolio of operatic work with him to the brand new three-year program. An instinct and affection for storytelling, however, already infused his compositions.
Taken as a whole, the work included on From Japan may stand as a document to Carl’s multifaceted exploration of the intersection between American and Japanese musical culture. In much broader and perhaps simpler terms, however, it is evidence of how careful a listener Robert Carl is, and how generously he invites us all to listen with him.