2020 GLOBAL MUSIC SILVER MEDAL AWARD - Outstanding Achievement for CD and trio ensemble.  


By Steven A. Kenney - www.sakennedymusic.com


A Quintet of Trios 

Extant Blues is a collection of new music for piano trio by five California-based composers. The Trio Accento has chosen these works for their exploration of a common parallel to popular music styles filtered through the unique lenses of each of the composer’s represented here.

There are three single-movement works that provide bookends for the two larger multi-movement works on the album. The opening piece, Polarized, has a repeated, asymmetrical ostinato pattern that helps unify the work as different contrasting sections provide intriguing rhythmic interest. The pattern itself has a samba-like pattern that helps give the work its energy. Rather fascinating is the way the work’s arc begins with the instruments in unison and then diverging outward into quite distinct, and often contrary explorations of the material. Kenneth Froelich’s work builds towards this extreme conflict and then pulls back to a unison conclusion providing a musical allegory for our current society, hence the title. In Gernot Wolfgang’s Jazz and Cocktails, he explores a musical party of sorts where different styles are referenced to depict intimate conversations with some of the great composers and performers of the 20th Century. Wolfgang’s use of extended harmonies makes for a striking backdrop to the way jazz and classical styles merge and move through different moods. It is at times like a third-stream jazz number of Shostakovich mixed with a little Grusin. There are also some sections that have an improvisatory feel. Many of the composer’s signature uses of jazz syncopations and styles also pop in this work as well.

The first larger work is Juhi Bansal’s Wings. The concept of the work is one of flight and imagery that links this to other natural depictions. Interestingly, the opening movement has a construction that seems almost raga-like with its restricted pattern helping to create a sense of flight that twists and turns with moments of lyrical beauty for the primary strings. The piano adds harsher harmonic arrival points and enhances the drama of the music. A more rhythmic exploration is the focus of the interior movement. Here the three-note motive flits about somber lines adding to an intense dramatic conversation. The finale is more of a perpetual motion explosion of energy with voices that come together and then fly apart until they move to an almost impressionistic exhaustion of pentatonic flourishes and ambivalence. What is rather fascinating is that this tightly-constructed work maintains connections both motivic and thematic that are transformed across the movements and provide a host of things to listen to on repeated explorations of this work. Russell Steinberg’s Paleface found its inspiration in the pop art of Jerry Kearns who explores hero myths in the work chosen here (nicely reprinted in the booklet notes!). Each movement tackles one aspect of these American heroes beginning with the “Wild West” with its advanced contemporary techniques for piano to add special effects and folkish, Americana references (and a host of quotations in an Ives-ian approach). It is interesting to hear the piano shift from a classical to more saloon hall style too. The “Action Hero” is an exciting scherzo taking its inspiration from Hollywood and secret agent and superhero music. It even has a little surprise for listeners when kazoos appear. It is a more cerebral and intense section. The final movement, “Into the Night” is a contemplation of what a “hero” is in the shadow of historical events such as 9-11. The music references hymn-like music in a reflective opening that moves into touches of pop gospel before dying away, in a way, echoing the earlier 19th-century hymnody of the opening movement. With these various musical ideas, what really stands out is that one can approach this music with this sometimes humorous quality, but as it plays out, there is an often darker, sardonic quality that makes the listener further reflect on these images and expectations of what these symbols really mean and how they impact the culture.

The last piece on this striking program is a piano quartet by Jeff Beal. Almost Morning was commissioned for choreographer Claudia Schreier who premiered it in 2015 at the Alvin Ailey dance theater. It opens with a flurry of arpeggios that move across the ensemble with striking lyrical phrases that float above this forward motion. A nice syncopated section helps invite into a modern jazz style with Beal’s gorgeous melodic lines often soaring above these harmonic punctuations. In some ways, there are approaches here that parallel what one has heard in the Bansal and Wolfgang pieces which further makes this a fitting conclusion.

The recording sounds great with a perfect imaging of the two solo instruments against the piano.  The latter's sound has good ambient capture which adds to the sense of presence.  The clarity of the sound picture is also quite admirable.  These are committed performances that really feel very natural in pieces that are essentially new.  Sequencing of the album creates a program that moves toward more intense musical expressions.  


By Colin Clarke

A welcome and vibrant disc exploring new music for piano trio and piano quartet.  

Kenneth Froelich's piece, Polarized opens up the album. Born 1977 in Chester, PA., he is currently a Professor on the faculty of Fresno State University.  He describes the piece presented here as a "study in contrasts".  It begins in scampering, virtuoso fashion which it turns out is but one element in a kaleidoscopic canvas.  Minimalist procedures are applied to angular shapes, while there are nods to both samba and the Second Viennese School serialism.  The musical surface demands a fine set of performers, its intent to map out the confusion and, indeed, polarization of the current political climate while at the same time acting as a plea for unity (reflected in the unisons at the beginning and end).  

Rather more poetic in inspiration, Juhi Bansal's Wings is a depiction of a bird in flight through a rain-filled sky seen while the composer was in some mountain.  Cast in three movements and lasting around 20 minutes, this is an extended piece, highly dramatic in the second movement's depiction of a growing storm.  The Trio Accento is supremely attuned to the rhythms here, sometimes shifting, sometimes pounding.  Winds form the inspiration to the finale, where the music becomes even more descriptive.  Again, there is a cleanliness to the performance that is most appealing.  This is serious music, taken seriously.  Currently on the faculty of Pasadena College, Juhi Bansal is an Indian composer who was brought up in Hong Kong.  I previously enjoyed her The Parting Glass on a Royen disc in Fanfare 42:2; I enjoyed Wings just as much.  

An imagined cocktail party is the inspiration for Gernot Wolfgang's Jazz and Cocktails.  This is not the only performance of this piece to be available via Albany: Walter Simmons reviewed (positively) a performance on an all-Wolfgang disc in Fanfare 32:1.  The jazz references come through clearly, contained neatly within Wolfgang's generally modernist aesthetic.  Both Duke Ellington and Shostakovich are referenced, as are jazz pianist McCoy Tyner (associated with the John Coltraine Quartet) and Ravel.  Quite a pot-pourri, but one that is expertly, slickly and, sometimes, profoundly managed. The idea of a dialogue between instruments, with various soliloquies well realized (Garik Terzian's cello is particularly eloquent and ruminative).  

Both artwork (by "psychological pop" artist Jerry Kearns) and video (Carlton Bright) are elements of Russel Steinberg's Paleface.  The artwork is reproduced in the booklet.  An exploration of the American hero myth, one might initially see correlations with the aesthetic of Michael Daugherty, but Steinberg's music goes deeper while maintaining a descriptive surface.  The idea of the American hero, posits the composer, operates on many levels of contemporary society.  Even Jesus, not particularly American last time I looked (although who knows Trump might requisition him at some point) "plays a lurking role".  From galloping cowboys to folksongs and hymns, film noir and pulp fiction, Paleface explores them all.  The three movements are: "Wild West";"Action Hero";"Into Night," with the final movement exploring icons as ghosts.  Steinberg uses extended piano techniques in "Wild West": strumming of the strings, tapping the steel bars and so on.  It all coheres beautifully; and it is fun, too.  The central panel is a scherzo that includes a brief part for kazoo (the arrival of which comes as something of a surprise if you haven't read the booklet notes in advance).  It is all great fun, a depiction of superheroes, secret agents and cartoon chases.  Easy to overlook the tightness of the performance then, superbly done here.  The work ends with an Adagio, reflecting that depth I referred to earlier.  Our superheroes are now, in the words of the composer, thrust "into the night of today's post 9-11 world".  A gospel anthem surfaces, itself eventually transformed into a ghost.  A fabulous work, way more profound than I first expected on reading the booklet notes.   

Finally, a piece for piano quartet by Jeff Beal, he of the House of Cards Symphony (reviewed by myself and several others in Fanfare 42:4).  His Almost Morning refers to his favorite time of writing, pre-dawn; it also refers to an incident with his young son, who impatiently referred to the fact that it was "almost morning" when waking a sleeping uncle.  It is the perfect piece with which to end the disc, somewhat light (pardon the semi-intentional pun) and ever playful, even in its quiet moments.  The Trio Accento is joined by violist Michael Chang for this beautifully bouncy offering.  It was written for choreographer Claudia Schreier, and was premiered with a group of six dancers plus live musicians, but works perfectly as a stand-alone piece.  

All of this is caught in a bright, open recording with realistic perspective.  A most refreshing release.  

Five Stars:  

A welcome and vibrant disc exploring new music for piano trio and piano quartet.