Thursday, November 9, 2017

Visiting the Cold Blue Music Vault

It took this past summer’s John Luther Adams Festival organized by SFJAZZ to get Jim Fox’ Cold Blue Music label on my radar. The label provided me with a generous sampling of Adams’ compositions that served my writing a background article about the composer. Since that time I have sampled recent releases more sporadically than I would have wished without giving much thought to the aesthetic compass that has guided Fox’ production values in his choice of repertoire. Fortunately, Fox was kind enough to provide me with two of his earlier anthology releases. To some extent these now serve a bit like a time machine; but I should begin with the disclaimer that they take me to a past that I enjoyed very much back when it was the present.

According to background material that Fox provided, most of the works that show up on these anthology recordings collect compositions that were composed specifically for the CD being released. The earlier of the recordings I have now encountered is basically a collection of six pieces featuring the talents of clarinetist Marty Walker, who plays bass clarinet as well as B-flat clarinet. The disc is structured around four pieces, each by a different composer, with two very short “Interlude” pieces (which may well have been improvisations) inserted into the sequence.

I should begin with my one issue of discontent with this album, which is the absence of any useful background material about the pieces being performed. That includes instrumentation, with the qualifier that most listeners will be able to figure that out for themselves. The very first track is Adams’ “Dark Wind,” which seems to have been scored for bass clarinet, piano (Bryan Pezzone), and a percussionist (Amy Knoles) playing both vibraphone and marimba. The “Interlude” pieces are solos; and the remaining compositions are for clarinet and string quartet, the performers being the members of the Amelite Consortium Strings. They include violinists Maria Newman and Peter Kent and violist Valerie Dimond. Greg Gottlieb plays cello for Fox’ own contribution to the album, “Between the Wheels.” The cellist for the other two pieces, “Thread of Summer” by Michael Jon Fink and “When April May” by Rick Cox, is Dan Smith.

The overall rhetoric across the entire album is one of quietude. Listening to these tracks will be served best by a setting with as little interference as possible. This contrasts significantly with pieces like Adams’ “Inuksuit,” which is supposed to be performed in an setting in which the music that is performed is enhanced by the natural sounds of the physical environment. “Dark Wind,” on the other hand, requires the listener to be keenly aware of the work’s subtle textures. The recording was made in 2001, meaning that the piece is, in many respects, a predecessor of “Dark Waves,” based on a similar approach and composed in 2007. (As was previously observed, “Dark Waves” can be taken as “preparatory material for “Become Ocean.”) One might almost say that the Adams composition orients the attentive listener in preparation for the pieces by Fink, Cox, and Fox that follow it on the album.

The later anthology, which is entitled simply Cold Blue Two, is based on recording sessions that took place between 2008 and 2012; and the album itself was released in November of 2012. Each of the fourteen tracks is by a different composer; and the four composers that contributed to Walker’s clarinet album are all included, as is Daniel Lentz, whose single-composition album River of 1,000 Streams was discussed on this site about a month ago. This, too, is an album that deserves attentive listening in the absence of any external interference.

In this case I have to confess that I have some personal favorites among the contributing composers, particularly Gavin Bryars and Larry Polansky, both of whom I have been following in a variety of different settings. Bryars’ “It Never Rains” is scored for electric guitar (Cox) and low strings (Alma Lisa Fernandez on viola, Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick on cello, and James Bergman on bass). Bryars does not waste any time prioritizing the bass part, which will be clear to anyone who knows that the bass is his own instrument. Polansky, on the other hand, also has a Cold Blue album of his own, freeHorn, which was released this past August and provides some excellent examples of his technique in working with natural harmonics. His “Eskimo Lullaby” is performed by John Schneider playing a National Steel guitar specifically designed for just-intonation tuning. In a similar vein it is worth observing that Polansky’s track is preceded by James Tenney’s “Mallets in the Air,” which requires a string quartet (violinists Andrew McIntosh and Andrew Tholl, violist Mark Menzies, and cellist Ashley Waters) to play with a just-intonation instrument, the diamond marimba designed by Harry Partch (played by Erin Barnes).

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