This month’s jazz selections include Ramsey Lewis & the Urban Knights seventh album VII, the Chick Corea Trio’s Trilogy 2, and the Louisiana-based Lilli Lewis Project’s multi-genre album We Belong. Gospel releases include John P. Kee’sI Made It Out and a new compilation, Jewell Gospel Trio: Many Little Angels in the Band, featuring a 1950s gospel girl group that included a teenage Candi Staton.
The Mask in the Mirror, a three-act chamber opera from composer and pianist Richard Thompson, portrays turmoil and tragedy in this dramatization of the courtship and marriage of renowned African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) and author Alice Ruth Moore (1875-1935). Conducted by Stephen Tucker, The Sanaa Opera Project released a recording of The Mask in the Mirror earlier this year. Featuring tenor Cameo Humes in the role of Paul and soprano Angela Owens as Alice, with mezzo-soprano Lindsay Patterson Abdou in several supporting familial roles, The Mask in the Mirror balances man against woman, jazz against classical composition, and society against self in a rise of tension that resolves only with end of their relationship and Paul’s subsequent surrender to tuberculosis.Continue reading →
For this month’s gospel music selections were looking in our own backyard with releases from two Indianapolis-based artists—Judah Band’s sophomore album Gone Fishin’ and Tyscot Records’ own Bishop Leonard Scott’s praise and worship album Jesus Love Legacy. R&B/soul releases include Unstoppable by Candi Staton and Free Me from Burundian soul singer J.P. Bimeni & The Black Belts.
Albums with a Caribbean tie include legendary reggae group Black Uhuru’s new release As the World Turns, the collaboration of reggae musician Winston McAnuff and French accordionist Fixi on Big Brothers, French-Guadeloupian trio Delgres’ debut album Mo Jodi, Snarky Puppy spin-off group Bokanté with the Metropole Orkest on What Heat(featuring Guadeloupian vocalist Malika Tirolien), plus Bokanté member and lap/pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier’s ‘dirty funk’ solo debut Exit 16.
Chicagoans who followed the classical music scene in the 1990s were likely first introduced to the amazingly talented McGill brothers when they performed with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. Raised on the South Side of Chicago, they began studying classical music at an early age, and by their high school years were receiving national attention.
Now, as musicians who hold principal positions in major orchestras, the brothers have not only reached the pinnacle of their chosen professions, but are among the few African Americans to do so. Demarre McGill recently returned to the Seattle Symphony as principal flute, and younger brother Anthony McGill is principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. Together with Irish pianist Michael McHale, they formed the McGill/McHale Trio in 2014. Portraits is the trio’s debut recording, released on the prominent Chicago-based Cedille label.
For this project, the McGill/McHale Trio selected works by living composers; three of those works are recorded for the first time on Portraits. The album takes its title from the longest work on the disc (26:03), Portraits of Langston by Kentucky native Valerie Coleman, flutist/composer of the Chicago-based quintet Imani Winds. Composed in 2007, her six movement suite is based on selected poems by Langston Hughes, which are recited before their corresponding movements by Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali. Hughes’ love of jazz is conveyed in Coleman’s musical palette, along with other styles reflective of the Harlem Renaissance era.
The suite begins with the short, melodic “Prelude: Helen Keller,” then delves into the polyrhythmic “Danse Africaine.” After an extended clarinet solo, the movement becomes increasingly frenetic, offering an opportunity for each instrument to shine. The poem “Le Grand Duc Mambo,” describing an altercation between the dancers and patrons of a Parisian cabaret, is masterfully mimicked by flute and clarinet as they enter into a brief and occasionally strident squabble. “In Time of Silver Rain” speaks of a period “when spring and life are new.” Here Coleman eschews jazz, writing instead a short, atmospheric piece with hints of Debussy in the piano intro and undulating winds, which also carries over into the flute solo.
Returning once again to Hughes’ brief sojourn in Paris in the 1920s, “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret” is “that tune that laughs and cries at the same time.” As the programmatic movement progresses, jazz inflections intensify, with the climax brilliantly pairing stride piano against clarinet riffs. Though one might expect “Harlem’s Summer Night” to be more boisterous, Coleman instead concludes the suite in a more tranquil manner, with blue notes only occasionally jarring the calm of the evening.
French composer Guillaume Connesson reveals his pop music influences in Techno-Parade (2002). This virtuosic work features “a continuous pulsation from start to finish,” emulating the repetitive nature of the Kraftwerk-influenced electronic dance music that emerged from Detroit’s African American clubs in the 1980s and became hugely popular in Europe. The ensemble performs brilliantly, maintaining precision throughout the complex counterpoint and rhythms, and increasing the intensity right up to the explosive finish.
Other works featured on the recording include an orchestrated version of Chris Rogerson’s A Fish Will Rise (2014/2016), based on Norman Maclean’s best-selling book A River Runs Through It; Paul Schoenfield’s Sonatina for Flute, Clarinet and Piano; Philip Hammond’s The Lamentation of Owen O’Neil; and McHale’s arrangements of both Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and the Irish traditional song The Lark in the Clear Air.
Portraits showcases the formidable talents of Demarre and Anthony McGill, who have found their match in the outstanding pianist Michael McHale. Performing with emotional intensity, extraordinary precision, and superb blending of timbres, the McGill/McHale Trio presents a dazzling debut album that’s equally significant for its three world premiere recordings of contemporary works. Highly recommended!
Artist: Hear in Now (Mazz Swift, Tomeka Reid & Silvia Bolognesi)
Label: International Anthem; dist. Redeye
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: June 2, 2017
Formed in 2009 through a commission from WomaJazz, the string trio Hear in Now features New York violinist Mazz Swift, Chicago cellist Tomeka Reid, and Italian double bass player Silvia Bolognesi. Individually the three women have performed and recorded with artists ranging from jazz musicians Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and Butch Morris to rappers Common, Jay-Z and Kanye West.
On their second studio album, Not Living in Fear, the trio displays their affinity for free jazz and the avant-garde across 13 tracks of original music composed variously by members of the group. The project is a natural fit for the International Anthem label, dedicated to promoting boundary-defying recordings and occurrences of creative music in Chicago and beyond. Through the label’s sponsorship, we’re now able to appreciate these works, recorded by HiN in 2012 and 2014.
Rather than easing into the album with a more accessible work, the trio fearlessly opens with “Impro 3.” The track builds slowly over long, sustained harmonies punctuated by a flurry of glissandos that provide a sense of foreboding as they lead to a freely improvised and frenzied climax. This is followed by “Leaving Livorno,” a more melodic work with a yearning quality that features a jazzy interplay between cello and violin. “Requiem for Charlie Haden,” composed by Bolognesi, is dedicated the late jazz bass player who died two months prior to this recording session. Bolognesi adds a touch of free jazz to the bass line and takes an extended solo, but otherwise incorporates Haden’s penchant for blending simple melodies with classical harmonies.
Chicago jazz vocalist Dee Alexander is featured on the title track. Reid frequently performs with Alexander, so it’s fitting that they collaborated on this composition. To say this song is a highlight feels like a bit of a cop out, given its broader appeal, but I make no apologies. Clearly it was sequenced at the album’s midpoint to provide a bit of breathing room, and displays the trio’s extensive background in jazz (all have various jazz side projects).
Throughout the album, the three musicians employ extended playing techniques. For example, col legno and other percussive effects are used in “Transiti” to emulate the chugging rhythm of a train, and the opening of “Terrortoma” is punctuated by an ominous thumping reminiscent of the sound of advancing soldiers. But these techniques are never overused; each composition offers multiple sections and thematic complexity.
Not Living in Fear is a courageous album, brilliantly performed by three very accomplished women. They may frequently present concerts in museums, but the museum analogy often applied to classical music is certainly not relevant. Instead, HiN challenges us to hear the music of the present, defined in their own terms.
Composer Zenobia Powell Perry’s long lifespan witnessed momentous upheavals in the course of African-American music; when she was born in 1908, Scott Joplin still had nine years to live and when she died at 96 in 2004 Tupac Shakur had already been gone for eight. The music collected on Cambria’s Piano Works: Zenobia Powell Perry mostly belongs to the latter half of her life, from the ‘60s to the ‘90s, and is performed by three pianists: Josephine Gandolfi, Deanne Tucker and LaDoris Hazzard Cordell. Gandolfi and Tucker join forces on a duet arrangement (by Gandolfi) of music from Perry’s 1987 opera Tawawa House that is handily the most appealing and immediate music in the collection. Tawawa House tells the story of a mixed-race resort in Tawawa Springs, Ohio that served as the predecessor to Wilberforce College, the first historically black institution of higher learning in the United States. The dramatic potential of this little known subject, combined with Perry’s interest in the folk idiom of the era around the Civil War, moved her to write some especially exciting and engaging music for it. Perry held a long time composition residency at Central State University, which began within Wilberforce, and while some listeners may feel that Tawawa House smacks of Copland and/or certain William Grant Still pieces like Miss Sally’s Party, it strikes this listener as being in tune with the music of the French neo-classical school exemplified by Les Six, an interest Perry would have shared with Copland.
That’s not to say that the rest isn’t equally captivating, but it’s more of a mixed bag. The seven pieces that open the disc are obviously for use in elementary music teaching and total to no more than eight minutes of the disc’s 54 minute playing time; their impression is rather slight, even the second time around. The more extended pieces outside of the suite are very interesting; Perry shares with Erik Satie a sort of disdain, or at least disinterest, in usual formal development schemes, though her gestures are linked through internal formal and thematic relationships that make clear that these are not transcribed improvisations, even if her choices are sometimes a little baffling, such as in the conclusion of Times Seven.
Perry is strongly attracted to big chords and sometimes her textures are rather thick. In the 1930s, she assisted choral director William Levi Dawson at Tuskegee and her Homage to William Levi Dawson on his 90th Birthday attempts to take the standard accompaniment used at that time for spirituals into a more instrumental direction. Some listeners may find it heavy-handed, but it is a sincere and deeply felt creation, and that summarizes much of what is heard here. Beyond that, Piano Works: Zenobia Powell Perry is a little technically challenged; it has a couple of glitchy edits and is a very quiet recording overall, so be prepared to crank it up.
Artist: Daahoud Salim, piano; Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam; Andrew Grams, conductor
Label: Challenge Classics
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: September 9, 2016
Challenge Classics International, a Netherlands based label, recently released this disc featuring the early piano works of Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). The Czech-born composer of German heritage was himself a gifted pianist who performed internationally. When Schulhoff relocated to Berlin in early 1922, he was introduced to American ragtime, dance and jazz music through the record collection of his friend George Grosz, an artist affiliated with the Berlin Dada group. This decade was extremely prolific for Schulhoff, who wrote many successful works synthesizing jazz and classical music, four of which are featured on Forbidden Music. The album’s title denotes the increasingly tenuous place of jazz in Germany by the late 1930s, which was one of the vilified genres designated by the Nazi party as “Entartete Musik” (degenerate music). Tragically, as a communist of Jewish heritage, Schulhoff was deported to a concentration camp in Bavaria, where he died in 1942. His music, considered unfashionable in the decades immediately following his death, has seen a much deserved revival over the last 20 years with numerous recordings of his works in print.
Pianist Daahoud Salim is certainly up to the challenge of interpreting Schulhoff’s music. Initially trained by his father, American composer and jazz saxophonist Abdu Salim, Daahoud studied both jazz and classical piano at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. The album begins with a brilliant reading of Schulhoff’s complex Konzert für Klavier und Kleines Orchester, op. 43 (1923), featuring the Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam led by Andrew Grams. The initial “Molto Sostenuto” movement flows into Salim’s rapturous piano cadenza in the “Sostenuto” section, then sweeps into the cinematic “Allegro alla Jazz” with full orchestra. This final movement is loosely scored ABA, with a mid-section interlude for violin and piano reminiscent of café music of the era.
The remaining works, all for solo piano, allow Salim to display his brilliant technique. “Troisième Suite pour piano pour la main gauche” (1926) consists of five short movements that begin in a contemplative manner, gradually increasing in complexity through the third movement “Zingara,” before concluding in an intricate, rhythmically percussive finale. In Suite dansante en jazz (1931), each of the six short movements represent a different dance style: Stomp, Strait, Waltz, Tango, Slow, and Fox-Trot. The final movement sounds particularly “Gershwin-esque,” but overall this work holds up well and doesn’t sound overly dated. Salim performs with aplomb, bringing out the nuances of each dance style. He is joined by Russian pianist Nadezda Filippova for the closing work, Ironien op. 34, a six movement suite for piano four-hands that’s light-hearted and whimsical, with touches of Debussy and ragtime.
Forbidden Music is a fine introduction to the classical side of Daahoud Salim, who is already making waves throughout Europe with his jazz quintet—they just released their debut recording to critical acclaim.
This collection of powerful and eclectic choral music is the first album dedicated entirely to celebrating Trevor Weston’s compositions. The Grammy nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street performs under famed conductor Julian Wachner, with the Trinity Youth Chorus and NOVUS NY (Trinity’s resident contemporary music orchestra) providing accompaniment on a few selections. Weston is Associate Professor of Music at Drew University and has received several honors throughout his career, including the George Ladd Prix de Paris from the University of California, Berkeley; a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the MacDowell Colony.
Weston embraces both sacred and poetic influences in his musical compositions. In the album liner notes he discusses the inspiration and motivations for each piece. For instance, Weston wrote “My Heart Hath Trusted in God” after searching through collections of short expressive texts from the English Gradual while working as music director at a small Anglo-Catholic church in Berkeley.
Certain compositions reflect expressions of collective African American experiences. “Truth Tones” was written to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “revelation of hidden truths” using texts from the African Saint Augustine and the African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In “O Daedalus, Fly Away Home,” the choir engages in a percussive stomp and clap similar to the traditional juba patting performed during slavery. The piece was based on a poem by Robert Hayden that combines Greek mythology with the African American folktale, “Flying Africans,” to evoke the spiritual flight away from adversity.
The still and static sorrow present in “Ashes” is a response to the attacks on 9/11 and the senseless violence and suffering reverberating throughout the world. The voices echoing during the song represent the cries for mercy. As Weston explains, “The drama builds to a symbolic creation of the two towers, a ‘tall’ chord consisting of two notes for each voice part.” This eight-minute composition draws from Psalm 102, acting as a prayer in the face of terror:
Hear my prayer, O lord,
And let my crying come unto thee.
My days are gone like a shadow.
And I am withered like grass
The final tracks on this album consist of five movements called “Ma’at Musings.” Conductor Julian Wachner commissioned Weston to create this piece in 2004, in which he incorporated 5th century BCE Egyptian texts. Describing the movements, Weston states, “The texts are earthly and direct so I composed a musical fantasy responding to striking words from the ancient world.”
This 15-track album eloquently expresses Weston’s interest in exploring the limits of creativity within sacred and secular thematic elements.
Though illustrious contralto Marian Anderson broke many barriers over the course of her career, her 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. stands as a signal moment in the history of civil rights. Most know this story but it certainly bears repeating for a younger generation.
After concertizing around the world in the 1930s and becoming the toast of Europe, Anderson’s agent, Sol Hurok, brought her back to America in 1935 for a historic homecoming at Town Hall in New York. His hope that her international stardom would shield her from racial discrimination in her homeland was unfortunately not realized. As was the case with all African Americans, concert artists included, Anderson was subjected to many indignities—not the least of which were segregated concert halls and denial of access to hotels and restaurants while touring. Though she initially avoided taking a political stance, this role was thrust upon her in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to rent Constitution Hall for Anderson’s proposed Easter Sunday concert. After being turned down by additional venues in the nation’s capital, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took up the cause (she had brought Anderson to the White House three years earlier), along with many other politicians and celebrities. To make a long story short, the Easter concert went forward on April 9, 1939, but was moved to the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall. Over 75,000 were in attendance, and the concert was broadcast live over NBC.
Let Freedom Ring! is advertised by JSP Records as the first state-of-the-art audio restoration of the NBC broadcast to be reissued on CD. In the accompanying notes by restoration engineer John H. Haley, he describes using noise removal to downplay the “noisy outdoor audience” in order to give justice to Anderson’s sumptuous voice. She was 42-years-old at the time, and the concert captures her in her prime. After the opening announcements, the concert begins with “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” as documented on this newsreel restored by UCLA:
Also included on this CD is a concert recorded over 20 years later at the Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen. Never before released, the October 27, 1961 performance includes Anderson’s typical mix of Brahms and Schubert lieder with a number of standard spirituals. Of particular interest are two lieder by Finish composer Yrjö Henrik Kilpinen, who died two years prior to this concert, as well as songs by Sibelius and an aria from Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila. As Haley notes, Anderson was 64 at the time of this concert and nearing the end of her career. Her performance is still captivating, even though a bit tenuous at times (Haley admits to making some pitch corrections).
If you wish to learn more about Anderson’s historic 1939 performance, the booklet includes the riveting story as excerpted from Harlow Robinson’s The Last Impresario: The Life, Times and Legacy of Sol Hurok (New York: Viking Penguin, 1994). Marion Anderson’s personal papers are housed at the University of Pennsylvania.
Lawrence Brownlee’s second release of bel canto opera arias on the Delos label—Allegro io son—is a welcome follow-up to the American tenor’s Grammy®-nominated album of Virtuoso Rossini Arias from 2014 (reviewed here). Once more he proves his rank as the leading proponent of this repertoire, consistently exhibiting rock-solid technique in spinning long legato lines, precise coloratura, and seemingly effortless high notes.
Brownlee again has again joined forces with Constantine Orbelian and the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, performing both popular and somewhat rarely heard selections—from Bellini’s I puritani and Donizetti’s Rita, La favorite, Don Pasquale, Dom Sébastien, L’elisir d’amore, and La fille du regiment, recorded in Lithuania’s Kaunas Philharmonic in April 2016.
Right from the beginning, he sets the tone with the joyful title track from Donizetti’s late (and rarely performed) one-act comedy Rita (or The Beaten Husband), tossing off B-naturals and C-sharps like they were confetti.
In the selections from I puritani—what would be Bellini’s final work—Brownlee negotiates the unforgiving tessitura with unbelievably remarkable ease. In Arturo’s entrance, “A te o cara,” the tenor floats the long lines in the ensemble—with fine support from soprano Viktorija Miskunaite, bass Liudas Mikalauskas, and baritone Andrius Apsega—always maintaining the pulse, notwithstanding the slow tempo. Equally, in Arturo’s third act “Son salvo,” Brownlee conveys (as does Miskunaite) with directness and full-bodied tone.
The two selections from L’elisir d’amore also are delivered in a straightforward fashion, without resorting to sentimentality, perhaps showing us that Nemorino might be more than just a “country bumpkin.” In both, he adds a little bit of ornamentation as well as mini-cadenzas that never distract from the character’s heartfelt declarations of love.
The concluding two tracks are from one of Brownlee’s signature roles, Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du regiment. The first selection, “Pour me rapprocher de Marie” is, according to the tenor “actually harder than ‘Ah, mes amis’—which you can sing if you have a solid high C—because it lies high overall and demands expressive phrasing.” He should know, because it is in this track, more so than any other on the disc, where Brownlee exhibits exactly why he is virtually peerless in this repertoire. Despite the slow tempo and flexible rubato, there is continuous forward motion even as he stretches the aria’s phrases to their limits, finally tossing off a C-sharp before floating a high A to pianissimo.
In the final track, Brownlee dives headfirst into “Ah! mes amis” from the opera’s first act. His earlier version on This Heart That Flutters with piano accompaniment (from 2013, reviewed here) may have had a little more urgency, but with support from the orchestra, Mikalauskas, and the men of the Kaunas State Choir, Brownlee takes his time and sounds much freer as a result. And all nine of those high Cs are as solid as ever.
Editor’s note: Lawrence Brownlee is an alumni of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he recevied his Master of Music degree.
Reviewed by Frank Villella, archivist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association
Jade Simmons wears her contrasting identities like a coat of arms, challenging the assumptions of what each identity should be or do. Young black women aren’t supposed to like classical music; beauty pageant queens (Simmons was Miss Illinois and first runner-up for Miss America in 2000) aren’t supposed to be persons of real substance or significant talent; classical musicians aren’t supposed to intersect with popular music, or have time for such non-musical pursuits as teen suicide prevention (Simmons’s pageant charity platform) or high fashion (she designs her own concert gowns.)
Rather than shrug off such externally-imposed expectations, Simmons confronts them directly in her public persona, web presence, and recordings, crafting a vision of a youthful future for classical music. Technology plays no small role in this endeavor. Like many popular artists (but perhaps not so many classical ones), she’s on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, building a grassroots network of fans among classical buffs and youth alike; and lest you question her rank in the classical realm, it’s worth noting that she was asked to host the first online broadcast of this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
This constellation (or revolution, as Simmons would have it) of identity, genre, and technology is evident throughout her new release, Revolutionary Rhythm. The album as a whole is the first installment of what Simmons calls The Rhythm Project, dedicated to exploring the rhythmic and percussive qualities of the piano. It comprises four contemporary piano pieces: Russell Pinkston’s TaleSpin (2000) for piano and pre-recorded electronics; Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, Op. 26 (1949); John Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy for Piano (1976); and three of Daniel Bernard Roumain‘s Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes (2006).
TaleSpin combines the repetitive gestures of post-minimalism with electronic sound and dancelike rhythmic motives; as an album-opener, it has enough energy to catch a listener’s ear without sounding alienating. The Barber sonata represents Barber’s foray into modernist techniques such as serialism, while still infused with Barber’s typical lush harmonies, and Simmons interprets its formidable fugue movement as a series of jazzy syncopations. Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy, a lesser-known work, stands as a breath of stillness in the midst of the other pieces’ busier rhythms, as Simmons gives its stark left-hand-only opening plenty of space and deliberation. Finally, DBR’s amalgam of hip hop beats and classical virtuosity in the Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes seems to herald one future for classical music: it doesn’t sound like classical music trying to ape hip-hop, or vice versa, but suggests a more elegant fusion of the two, crafted by artists who understand both. Although the piece was originally scored for solo instrument or ensemble, Simmons’s solo piano rendition includes pre-recorded hip hop beats laid under her piano lines (when she performs it live, she uses a loop pedal to self-accompany.)
Simmons’s technical skill and interpretive abilities shine throughout this album, making Revolutionary Rhythm not only a cohesive and interesting group of contemporary pieces, but a promising first step for an artist with a vision of where she wants to go.
Following is a YouTube clip of Jade Simmons talking about the pieces on the album:
If one had to use a single word word to describe Tania León’s music it would have to be “movement”: movement found in the tempo and rhythmic figures, movement between musical lines, and movement between contrasting timbres and textures. Movement is a salient feature in the works presented in Singin’ Sepia, an accurate representation of León’s compositional style and pallet. As a young musician in Cuba, León listened to traditional and popular dance music, and collaborated with popular music and jazz performers and composers such as Paquito D’Rivera. After moving to New York City she started her professional career in the U.S., working with dance companies and co-founding the Dance Theater of Harlem. Thus it comes as no surprise that movement is such an important feature in her works.
One should not, however, expect to hear replicas of Cuban clave and guguanco patterns, or quotes of jazz and soul melodies in León’s music. León extracts the essence from these musical traditions and uses this essence as part of her compositional pallet, which includes atonality, pointillist techniques, interlocking rhythms, ostinati, extended instrumental and vocal techniques, and electro-acoustic elements. León mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar, meeting and exceeding the listener’s expectations. Due to the variety of compositional techniques and styles León’s music defies categorization, and she would not have it any other way. As mentioned by Jason Stanyek in the accompanying liner notes, “avoiding reductive categorizations has become León’s trademark.” Her stance on categories and labels extends from her works to her personal life and background, refusing to be labeled Afro-Cuban, Cuban-American, or any other hyphenated term. In León’s words, she is a citizen of the world, and she is inspired by diverse musical cultures.
León’s works are also the result of the dialogue between composer and performer. Most were commissioned by a performer or an ensemble, so León created these works with specific performers in mind. In fact, three of the six pieces recorded for this album were recorded by the artists who commissioned them (“Bailarín,” “Singin’ Sepia,” and “Axon”). Her style appeals to performers of new music from diverse backgrounds, such as David Starobin (guitarist and executive producer of Bridge Records), Tony Arnold (soprano), and Mari Kimura (electro-acoustic music composer and violinist).
The title work of the album, Singin’ Sepia, also shows León’s penchant for working with texts by contemporary poets, in this case Rita Dove. The work is a set of five songs for soprano, violin, clarinet and four-hand piano. León’s writing for each instrument (including the voice) consists of both idiomatic and extended techniques, producing five virtuosic parts that need to be perfectly synchronized in order to convey the contrasts between stillness and movement, and the interlocking rhythmic figures that create subtle, evanescent moments of groove. The performance offered in the album goes beyond presenting and achieving these moments, and delivers a nuanced and emotional rendition of León’s work.
Those of us familiar with León’s compositions will also find delight in her use of pre-recorded materials in “Axon,” for violin and interactive computer. In this work she quotes sections from “Batey” and “A la par” to construct the soundtrack with which violinist Mari Kimura (who commissioned the work) interacts.
Singin’ Sepia shows León’s flexibility and ability to compose for a variety of performing forces, ensembles and combination of instruments (“Horizons” was written for a full orchestra, while “Satiné” was written for two pianists), therefore the listener should not expect continuity in performing forces from piece to piece. The album is a sample of León’s style, which would be difficult to present in concert to a live audience. However, the idea of movement, whether it is actual movement, its anticipation or interruption, cuts across all of the works presented in the album, and every piece is characterized by her ample use of a wide variety of musical styles and compositional techniques.