classical music


Thanks for visiting and happy new year, friends and blog-readers! For years I’ve been intending to make a “best musical finds of the year” CD to give out, and I’m happy to have realized the first actualization of what I hope will be an annual tradition. Please note that this is not necessarily a wrap-up of songs coming from albums released in 2010 – as I’m not a credentialed reviewer I don’t get boxloads of free samples – but something a bit more individually crafted: a wide-ranging, genre-crossing compendium of recorded music, most of it unfamiliar to mainstream channels, all of which came across my radar over this past year. 2010 was one of the most fulfilling years of my life, loaded with thrilling travel, new friends and experiences, and in tribute to it I’m quite jazzed to present…

2010: THE YEAR IN MUSICAL FINDS
(the inaugural edition of a yearly tradition!)

Track 1: Jo Lawry – Lôro
I first saw rising Australian jazz singer Jo Lawry’s name on Fred Hersch’s wonderful record Live at the Jazz Standard, an album which also featured my former trumpet teacher Ralph Alessi, mentioned below. Browsing in one of my favorite crackdens used CD haunts, Academy Records in NYC, earlier in the year, I happened upon a copy of Lawry’s debut CD, and it’s a really well-put-together string of jazz-inflected singing with an easy virtuosity that just makes me… happy? (Considering the title, this seems appropriate.) In this track, Lawry’s band submits a rather mind-bending performance of Egberto Gismonti’s makes-you-glad-to-be-alive melody – and if you don’t know the brilliance of the Brazilian guitarist/pianist/genius Gismonti, you’re missing out. This record makes me want to dance til the sun comes down. And maybe even after.

Track 2: Deep River – Hudson River Ohboywhattafind. Being involved in the arts sometimes means that your friends are your creative inspiration, and this is certainly this case with my soon-to-be-rehearsing-and-traveling-through-Ireland buddy Rachel, whose DC-based roots band, together for a mere six months (!), is growing a fan base exponentially in this area. Super catchy stuff which runs the gamut from raise-the roof singalongs to poignant ballads with gorgeous Americana-inspired harmony vocals. (I was torn between this track and the gorgeous Virginia. I saved 26 seconds in the choice.) Click here for a few videos of them I shot at a wonderfully intimate house concert in Capitol Hill in early December. Paste Magazine has already called them “the best of what’s next” in their list of Top 20 new American bands. Get on the ground floor for this one, folks.

Track 3: Iarla Ó Lionáird – Cu-Cu-In
This wins my unexpected, voice-from-above award find of the year. This past summer I took a fascinating 6-week crash course in Gaelic through Solas Nua, the wonderful DC-based Irish arts organization I’m proud to be a company member with, and I learned how difficult the Irish language can be to someone with no background. Yet when Irish is sung, I find the common language of my ancestors (on both sides of my family!) absolutely mesmerizing, and have been spending time schooling myself on clips of great trad singers like Nioclás Tóibín, Darach Ó Catháin, and Joe Heaney. I took a chance on my first Iarla Ó Lionáird CD, released under Peter Gabriel’s “Real World” label, in a clearance bin at Newbury Comics, and boy was that a winning gambit. From West Cork, Iarla is known as one of the best modern practitioners of the traditional Sean nós style, and I’d describe his records as being a cross between powerful vocals, completely (and unapologetically!) in Irish, and the soothing, electro side of Radiohead. I’m enamored with his music and I hope you will be too.

Track 4: Pietro Tonolo – Your Song
I’d been intrigued by this record for a while, and really, who wouldn’t be? European jazz musicians playing an entire album of Elton John covers? (Okay, maybe just me.) It’s a bold move which could easily have failed miserably but I think quite the opposite is true. I don’t know much about the saxophonist leader of the session, but with the always compelling Steve Swallow on bass, jazz legend Paul Motian on drums, and the smooth Gil Goldstein on piano, you’re talking about a terrific lineup of players. Given its fairly simple harmonic foundations, Elton’s music lends itself surprisingly well to improvisation, and I find their take on this classic 70s ballad just stunning. And heck, it’s my parents wedding song, and with their 40th anniversary coming up, how could I not include it?

Track 5: Sarah Siskind – Say It Louder
I discovered this Nashville-based country singer-songwriter by way of the excellent newsletter of fellow “Americana” songwriter Jennifer Kimball, discussed below. Now. Listen to this song, and ask yourself the following question: Why in God’s name is Taylor Swift famous when talent like this exists and goes under-recognized?! Kill corporate radio! And buy Sarah’s records, they’re terrific; her songwriting belies the myth that country-folk songwriting can’t be harmonically daring and catchy. And absolutely no one sounds like her. Thankfully a few Nashville insiders like Alison Krauss realize this woman’s abilities (she recorded Sarah’s song Goodbye Is All We Have), but to the mainstream she seems completely unknown. Let’s change this, hmm’kay?

Track 6: Session Americana (feat. Ry Cavanaugh & Jennifer Kimball) – Lighthouse Light
Those who know my musical tastes well know I’ve been following the career of Boston-based singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball for years. Formerly of the terrific 1990s duo The Story with Jonatha Brooke, Jennifer is one of those hidden gems in the American musical landscape who humbly goes about her business just happening to own an extraordinary gift for singing, and seems content to perform for her regular fans at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. I originally heard this track when it was used as a very brief tag on the end of a song on Jenn’s brilliant, must-own, stupid-music-industry-slept-on-it, 1998 debut Veering From The Wave, and the simple melody always intrigued me, as did the distinctive, cottony voice of Ry Cavanaugh, now otherwise known as “Mr. Jennifer Kimball.” A recent stroke of luck took me to a YouTube clip of Ry singing this song in its entirety in someone’s living room (!), so I researched further and ended up finding the original recording of Ry and Jennifer singing what sounds for all the world like an old, melancholy sea chanty. I think it takes a special gift to write a song this direct, and by including it, I wish everyone could appreciate the thrill of great, simple harmony singing.

Track 7: Ralph Alessi – Buying, Selling
It’s great to see my former Eastman trumpet mentor Ralph finally getting some props within the jazz community, though overall his music is still shockingly overlooked by most mainstream critic’s polls. This is demanding modern jazz, to be sure, but there’s something in his approach which is so off-the-cuff, freewheeling, and fun, and in an art form which sometimes takes itself way too seriously, I think these are much desired qualities. Excellent band as well, including the prolific Jason Moran on piano. Ralph’s virtuosity is never used for empty showboating, but always serves to supplant his highly original, highly dedicated musical voice. And unlike so many retread, heard-it-all-before artists in modern jazz, he always has something to say.

Track 8: Laura Veirs – Freight Train
Laura comes out of Portland, OR, that hotbed of great coffee, smooth wine, and folky hipsters. Something about that town aligns itself with beautiful, simple music – the late, lamented Elliott Smith comes quickly to mind. I kept hearing Laura’s name and downloaded the 5-song EP Two Beers Veirs which contained this song. (And really, with a title like that, how could you not love the music inside?) This is an unadorned, emotionally direct cover of an old and once popular folk song by the great American roots artist Elizabeth Cotton, whose music I also happily discovered this year.

Track 9: Eef Barzelay – Take Me
I discovered this unorthodox, goes-down-easy artist while surfing through video podcasts presented on the NPR Tiny Desk Concerts. (The Tiny Desk is a terrific showcase for emerging artists, and all the shows are available as free podcasts. What’s that, you don’t know what a podcast is? Aw, don’t tell me that!) Barzelay is a quirky singer-songwriter with a voice like a thin sprinkle of sawdust, and he’s branching out from the equally intriguing alt-country band Clem Snide which he formally headed.

Track 10: Scala and Kolacny Brothers – Colorblind
Weird name + unorthodox group (a Belgian girl’s choir?) + consistently chill-inducing sound = major find for me. And I know, I know, they sung Radiohead’s Creep on the trailor for The Social Network, but I still haven’t seen that movie and I knew about them before anyway. If you can get past the borderline schmaltz factor, I think the pop arrangements these guys sing are really soothing and beautiful; this Counting Crows song (doesn’t it sound like Philip Glass?) was also a discovery for me, and it sounds quite nice on my bedroom piano.

Track 11: Luke Kelly – Raglan Road
This song wasn’t exactly a discovery of this year, as I remember hearing numerous singers tackle it in pubs on my first trip to Ireland in the summer of 2008, but it was only this year I got around to tracking down the song and the man who made it famous. Although he’s well known to many Irish trad fans, Luke Kelly was a major find for me, as was the music of his band, The Dubliners; go watch his live version of this song on YouTube (it’s after the poet Patrick Kavanaugh’s recitation) and I bet you’ll be as mesmerized as I was by the power of his voice and performance aesthetic. I’m happy to report I crossed off a “bucket list” item this year when I learned this song and sang it myself at the Monday night Irish session at Nanny O’Brien’s in DC, to the accompaniment of a few of the players who joined in. And now that I have one legitimate Irish pub song under my belt (sorry, lovely as it is, singing Danny Boy will get you instantly branded a tourist at most genuine Irish pubs), I’ll hopefully be on my way to learning a few more in 2011? IN ENGLISH.

Track 12: Yaron Herman – And the Rain
There’s a pretty terrific record store down the street from me in Silver Spring who gets a holy ton of new, hot-off-the-presses-from-NYC jazz CDs in for cheap. I’d heard Israeli pianist Yaron Herman’s name as a rising star in the jazz world so took a chance, and very much enjoy his approach. Obviously one of the countless young pianists influenced by Keith Jarrett – check out Baptiste Trotignon for another – I dig Herman’s easy virtuosity and catchy compositions.

Track 13: Caoimhín O’Raghallaigh – It’s All About the Rhythm of Her Toes
In addition to the theater work I get to be involved with while working with Solas Nua, I’ve found more than a few opportunities for musical discoveries via their concerts and podcasts. I originally heard this 26-year old star of the Irish fiddle world interviewed by Ronan Connolly on Solas’s wonderful Eist podcast, and earlier last fall I had the chance to hear him play live at a terrific duo concert with accordionist/vocalist Brendan Begley in Rockville, MD. After the show, I tipped Caoimhín (pronounced (“Kway-veen”) that the weekly Monday night Irish session at Nanny’s was taking place that night, and I was thrilled to be there later when he stopped by, borrowed someone’s fiddle, and played a few rousing impromptu pieces for the gaping-mouthed fans in the back room. Solas will be presenting him locally next March, so I look forward to hearing his music again.

Track 14: Sam Sadigursky – Love
This track was hands down one of my favorite finds of the year. Using the text of a poem by one of my favorite modern poets, Czesław Miłosz (and here’s why), NYC-based saxophonist/composer Sadigursky manages to write a melody both simple and flexible, and his band of young (and relatively unsung) NYC players and singers interact with inspiring improvisational chemistry. This track can be found on Vol. 1 of Sadigursky’s “Words Project,” a remarkably ambitious 3-CD undertaking, giving ample evidence that the NYC scene is still churning out relevant modern jazz. The way this piece builds I feel demonstrates the potential that “free” forms of modern jazz can offer which, at least to my ears, is much more rewarding than the heard-it-done-better-in-1957 retreads which clog up too much of the contemporary jazz scene. If it doesn’t stick the first time, relax into it and keep listening.

Track 15: Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden – Don’t Ever Leave Me
When two of my all-time musical heroes get together on one record, you know I’m going to include something from their collaboration. There are some lovely tracks on this album, including the rarely played standards One Day I’ll Fly Away (perhaps familiar to Moulin Rouge fans) and Nat King Cole’s Where Can I Go Without You?, but this song has been one of my favorite under-recognized standards for a long time. (Keith’s too, as he’s recorded it more than a few times.) Keith and Charlie of course played together in Jarrett’s so-called “American Quartet” in the 1970s, but they haven’t recorded together since, so the release of this record was about as close to an event as the jazz world allows itself. This album is a master class for all jazz musicians – to all musicians, period – saying much about the subtle ways a life spent living in music can raise mere competence to the level of transcendence.

Track 16: David Lang – Have Mercy, My God (from “The Little Match Girl Passion”)
NYC-based composer (and Bang on a Can co-founder) David Lang won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for this brilliant, ambitious work for choir and percussion, based on a Hans Christian Andersen story about a poor match girl dying of hunger on the street, so although the contemporary classical music world might be familiar with his output, I’m guessing most listeners aren’t. Although the whole piece is quite moving, something about this particular movement struck me as particularly simple and profound. I suppose the highest compliment I can pay it is that I want to write music like this.

Track 17: Fred Hersch – A Wish (Valentine)
I might be cheating by including the singing of Jo Lawry twice in this list, but since this record is released under pianist Hersch’s name, I’m going to let myself off. I love just about everything about this gorgeous tune, composed by one of the great artists of modern jazz piano. If the musical theater and cabaret worlds allowed itself to incorporate more harmonic influences from the world of modern jazz, we might get more music which sounded this good.

Track 18: Patty Griffin (with Buddy Miller) – Never Grow Old
Patty Griffin’s music was a major discovery for me this year, and I now count her as one of my very favorite artists making music in America. She could sing a phone book and I’d be enraptured. This song, from her recent album Downtown Church, sounded familiar to me, and after looking it up I realized its because it’s the song which plays over the end credits of the film Brokeback Mountain. The day I first heard this version, I was shooting a short film in which I was playing a man who has only a few weeks to live, and the very first scene we shot was with me holding a delivering a monologue to a 4-month old baby. Couldn’t get this song out of my head. What’s also astonishing about it is that like Ry Cavanaugh’s song, it “feels” like an old American folk song, yet the composer is Gustavo Santaolalla, an Argentinian film composer! I love implausible backstories like that, and it speaks yet again to the international appeal of the American folk sound. and in fact it is one. (Check out Aretha!) Thanks to commenter Mark (see below) for the fix.

Track 19: Stefano Bollani – Maple Leaf Rag
On principle I try to buy every piano album that comes out on ECM Records, the German label most famous for presenting Keith Jarrett (my primary musical idol) to the world. I don’t know much about Bollani except that he’s young and Italian, and boy can he swing. I love how he stays far enough away from the famous Scott Joplin ragtime melody that you don’t really know what it is you’re hearing until he drops the melody clear as a bell about halfway through, then just as quickly runs away from it. The world needs more great improvisers like this, I think. And it’s one more example of the international reach of America’s greatest art form. That musical button at the end? I’m reminded of what the great Sinatra said after hearing the Basie band wrap up a particularly knotty swing piece: “Nothin’ to it, folks.”

Track 20: Stile Antico – Ave Maria (William Byrd)
Those who followed my Europe travel blog from last summer will recall my elation at hearing, befriending, and closing down a British pub with the great singers of the Grammy-nominated early music choir Stile Antico. I passed on their info to a friend of mine at NPR, and was thrilled to watch as my idea to have them perform on NPR’s terrific Tiny Desk came to fruition, and even more thrilled that I had the chance to go and watch them sing live in the corner of the NPR music office in DC! (They even made NPR’s Best New Music of 2010, available as a free download!) I strongly feel that the only thing limiting anyone living on Planet Earth from falling in love with the eternal sounds of Renaissance choral music is lack of exposure and silly socio-economic boxes. Listen and be transported. Then go buy their stunningly good records! These guys are also loads of fun and I’m happy to call them my friends.

Track 21: Kennedy Center Honors (with James Taylor & Mavis Staples) – Let It Be/Hey Jude
There’s only one track I could have picked to complete the inaugural edition of year-end finds. And when I say “I can hear myself” on this track, I mean that quite literally. Those who know me well heard plenty about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which was singing background at the Kennedy Center Honors in December, and having the chance to watch it live on television with my family was almost as moving as being there in person. Hey Jude was my high school jazz band’s theme song, so of course that was on my mind as the curtain came up and we sang out hearts out to the Obamas, Oprah, and Mr. Paul McCartney himself, fighting back tears as much as we were onstage. Being a part of this event reminded me how music can bring us together, and in a splintered, sectarian world, we need the healing power of music more than ever. What a way to end the year.

Honorable mentions:
It was a gargantuan task trimming this list down to fit onto an 80-minute CD, and a few contenders got left off. I’m pretty sure I first heard Gretchen Parlato and Darrell Scott in the last days of 2009, so sadly, that gave me justification for slicing them off. Also, quick plug for this new record which I just heard the other day, available to YOU as a free download, and it most likely represents everything you hate about pop music of the past five years getting beat up by everything you love about it times a thousand. And finally, this was very much a Mahler year for me; hearing the barnburning 5th Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach in Prague last summer, and hearing the majestic, life-affirming 2nd Symphony in October (James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra) with friends and family, were without question two of the most profound live musical experiences of my life. As was going way out of my way to sit unaccompanied at his grave outside Vienna in July, pondering how one man and his obsession with music might have such an enormous impact on the world.

Hope you enjoyed. Here’s to 2011 and all its yet-unheard music which through the eternal laws of happenstance, will make itself known!

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Here are comments I posted in response to a recent post on on Washington Post writer Anne Midgette’s excellent blog, The Classical Beat.

Interesting metaphor you present here, Anne.

Allow me to toss in the idea, however, that there’s a lot more going on in this dynamic than mere musical preferences, and that this has loads to do with culture and social status. In following your metaphorical lead, do forgive my being a bit of a blanket generalizer!

Your “red staters” of classical music probably consist of a high % of highly educated, culturally elite, inordinately wealthy patrons (and matrons) of the refined concert hall, but more often than not without musical training, and importantly, without a real stake in the future (i.e. continued relevancy) of the music. I bet we’ve all seen people who storm off with their minks in a huff any time new music is performed because “un-pretty sounds” don’t adhere to their vision of what respectable music should look and sound like. The historical record shows that Beethoven himself had very little use for these people, regardless of how important their role as funders might be. Even if this operates on an subconscious level, audiences like this might see classical music as a appendage of culture, as an experiential designer handbag. Thus, “being challenged” – artistically, intellectually, spiritually – is patently NOT part of the appeal. Generalizations, sure – I’m well aware there are many people who just love the “3 B’s” who don’t fit my straw matroning here – but in my past life working in marketing at Lincoln Center I responded to lots of letters from conservative audience members who needed to be coddled primarily due to their important roles as donors.

Meanwhile, your “blue staters” tend to be musically trained, more integrated within the musical community, and importantly, they understand that for any art to remain relevant, it MUST continue have something to say to the general culture at large.

Blue staters are invested in the past, present, and future of the music. The academicization (and elitist posturing) of new music occurring post-1945 obviously dealt a devastating blow to capturing the imaginations of audiences – and to the notion that modern classical music should have relevancy – and it’s become difficult to undo this damage. Part of the challenge is presentation and packaging, and I feel the future of classical music will reflect a more catholic approach to music-making, which at present moment the sterile concert hall experience is far too rigid to allow. However, venues like Le Poisson Rouge in NYC are presenting new classical music to young, hip audiences who are eager to feel included in the art of their time. (Catch the interchange with Jason Parker and I on this dynamic in jazz here.) And I imagine these venues won’t shy away from programming groups who play Beethoven (I see Hilary Hahn is about to perform Bach at LPR!) – but their concept more accurately reflects the true diversity of classical music, rather than the exclusive glorification of the Romantic Era which appeals to society types. If you don’t know him, check out what pianist Uri Caine is doing with canonical classical works – his Mozart, Bach, and Mahler discs are revelatory both in their stylistic accuracy and musical exploration!

Incidentally, it’s interesting that DC doesn’t have anything (yet) like a LPR: perhaps because DC tends to be an inordinately old-guard, “red-state” city, from a cultural and institutional perspective?

Anyway, great blog and fodder for discussion. I think that new media and the blogosphere makes “we happy few” who are passionate about art music all the more connected and strong!

1. Keith Jarrett at Carnegie Hall (New York, NY, 2005/2009)
Keith is my musical hero, so this one’s a bit of a no-brainer. And here I go messing up my clean 10-part series already – in fact I attended two sold-out concerts (2005 and 2009) of Jarrett playing completely improvised solo pieces for piano. I had radically different experiences with respect to seat location (after the view from the nosebleeds in ’05 I learned the lesson that it’s OK to splurge on some things), but both concerts were revelatory and featured a similar sense of daring and musical ecstasy. A disclaimer here: IMHO Jarrett is the greatest musician in the world – or at least in the Western world. No one else makes music at such a consistently virtuosic, exploratory, and spiritually rich level. He’s probably overall the greatest improviser of modern jazz piano and I consider him (NOT Wynton) the true heir of Miles Davis (who he played with during the 1970s), but his contributions go far beyond the realm of jazz. Apart from his legend, there’s just something so magical about the way he plays the instrument: his chords just seem to ring and travel, he has a “sound.” Anyone who wanted to could prowl around the web and find my master’s thesis on Jarrett. But I digress.

I remember instances during both concerts – though the second is more vivid because I sat close to the stage – where the ecstasy of the moment and the passage of time felt otherworldly. Or perhaps it was actually that Jarrett was able to suck more beauty out of this world than any other music I know? I think it’s these moments that keep me coming back to music – the ineffability, the opportunity for transcendence, weightlessness and the sensation of suspended time. And I think this happens most potently in improvised music: everything is so present and precarious. The 2005 concert is available as a 2-CD set through ECM Records, and I’m hoping the 2008 concert will be released someday. For highlights of Carnegie ’05, go straight to the encores – the first notes of his classic composition “My Song” elicits giddy applause from half the crowd (i.e. me) who recognizes the piece, and Jarrett plays the living begeezus out of it. All of this said, I remember in ’09 Jarrett played about 6 encores, and left the stage (to thunderous applause) each time, really milking the crowd, which came off as self-indulgent. This tends to be one of the knocks on him. All in all, it matters not. People who ask “why are there no Mozarts today?” just don’t know where to look.

2. Suspicious Cheeselords at Cathedral of St. Matthew (Washington, DC, 2008?)
I’ve had the pleasure of singing (and drinking red wine on Wednesday nights) with this terribly fun, exquisitely musical bunch of guys in the past, but for the purposes of this list I recall hearing them sing one evening in the gorgeous acoustic space of St. Matthew’s. (Check out their website for the hilarious story of how they got their name.) Hearing Renaissance polyphony in its natural environs is a treat no human being should live a life without experiencing – class distinctions of classical music be damned. I bet if you bussed 20 kids in from Anacostia and plopped them down in the front row, once they settled in they’d be as transfixed as I was hearing those tones bounce off the cathedral walls. I hate how the entirety of classical music gets summarily dismissed as elitist puffery – music for wealthy white people – yet experiences like this could have so much to offer to young people looking for something more timeless than the latest corporate-funded pop celebrity. The marketing of music like this has to change – I know the great London-based ensemble Stile Antico actively uses social media – but I fear that even forward-thinking classical groups still cater to a self-selected, restricted audience who are already predisposed to such music. Assumptions borne of social construction – the “image” thing – is without question classical music’s worst enemy.

Anyway, if you live in the DC area, do make an effort to check out the Cheeselords live, and their handful of recordings are way better than they should be.

3. Radiohead at Great Woods/whatever shtupid corporate-sponsored name GW happens to be called now (Massachusetts, 2003)

I’ve tried to describe attending this concert as watching people watch a concert. This is how far my brother and I were from the stage. That said, I also remember feeling the only framework I could hang around hearing Radiohead live was that of a quasi-religious experience. Seeing Thom Yorke (or at least a miniature version of him) writhing onstage was like watching a shaman exorcising a demon. (Not that I’ve ever seen this, but Yorke matched my internal picture of what it might look like.) However, little of this performance aesthetic would matter to me (see: punk music) if the sounds themselves itself weren’t really interesting, complex, and vital. Yorke has a knack for writing music which feels like it couldn’t have come out of any traditional, learned approach to music-making. Sure, he bases lots of his sounds on modern classical composers (Messiaen, Ligeti, Reich, etc.), improvised jazz (allegedly Miles’s Bitches Brew was the major inspiration on OK Computer), and 70s prog & punk rock, but Radiohead seems the classic example of transcending influence – of a creative totality far greater than the sum of its parts. And unlike hearing improvised music, I admit there’s something about the energy of “knowing the song.” OK Computer and Kid A were life-changing records for me in the early years of the 2000s. I carried these sounds in my head through moments that spark self-definitions – most sharply, hearing The Tourist, the final cut from OK Computer, during my best friend’s wake in October 2000. I don’t think until that period I was aware of how completely we can lean on music to get through adversity. This is not ordinary stuff. If you don’t know Radiohead, you don’t know the ecstatic, thrilling potential of modern pop music.

Tangentially Related Honorable Mention (TRHM): Playing Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” with brilliant, way-too-good-to-be-a-lounge-pianist Scot Hawkins at Mimi’s American Bistro, ca. 2005-06. Scot possessed a musicality that could make Yanni sound compelling, and his approach to playing pop songs taught me lots about sensitivity and the ways classical training can influence playing and hearing any music. Late night sets (after the cheesy “play Freebird!” audiences had left) in that place were legendary. As we used to say, “You just won’t get that at Denny’s!”

4. Gillian Welch at Town Hall (New York City, 2001?)
If you’re a junkie for old-time country songs about bandits and ne’er-do-wells, tight harmonies soaked in some distant, remembered Americana, and the pure sound of acoustic instruments and real voices, you need to catch Gillian Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings. I’m taking a spin in the wayback machine to recall this early-in-the-decade concert, but a few things stick with me. The hall brimmed with hundreds of 20 and 30-somethings, most likely weaned on overamplified rock, yet deeply giving themselves over to this hushed, fragile music. In the thick of downtown Manhattan, bastion of commerce and cynicism, of all places. I think because we’re so unused to hearing unprocessed human voices in performance contexts, that when we do they really stick out. And there’s something about harmony singing that Americans connect to in their bones – that tight buzz good harmony singing makes thrills our ears – but obviously it’s really tough to pull off. [Jennifer Kimball has always been one of my favorites at this. Check her stuff out too!] I remember that as an encore, they came to the lip of the stage – Welch in barefeet – and sang an unamplified version of the classic country narrative ”The Long Black Veil” – and the silence and focus in that hall was unlike anything I’d thought was possible in so-called “popular” music. Mercy.

TRHM: Speaking of live, unaltered singing, I don’t know how I could’ve made this list without talking about hearing music in the pubs of Ireland. I recall a weekday night in Kilkenny, hearing patrons of the pub casually toss off songs like “The Dawning of the Day,” pints in hand. And another, in a bar in Galway, hearing local troubadour Gerry Shannon (I’m not making that name up) perform an 8-minute solo song about a man from Donegal about to be executed. We followed him out to his car (which he was maybe sleeping in), bought a CD, and were thoroughly entertained by this colorful rogue. Boy, did he have the ability to command a room with his voice. Gifted Irish singer/songwriter Declan O’Rourke did something similar during his brilliant set for Solas Nua in DC last month. Check out this video of his solo song “Marrying the Sea,” actually recorded in NYC within 24 hours after we were munching on Chinese food in Georgetown with him. The lesson? Put the studio toys away. Confidently sing solo and people will listen.

5. J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, Simone Dinnerstein, piano (An die Musik, Baltimore, MD, Sept. 2007)
Good lord, this was an incredible concert. I think it matched my idea of how classical music should look and act – a young, vibrant, attentive audience there to hear serious music played by a fresh talent with something to say. And with a reception sponsored by an excellent brewery! (Cooperstown, NY’s Ommegang, purveyor of fine Belgian-style beers.) Dinnerstein, fresh off of making waves in the classical world for her self-produced recording of Bach’s legendary, mammoth keyboard work, played the entire hour-plus-long work from memory, yet maintained a terrific sense of spontaneity and playfulness. Being in that resonant hall and breathing that charged air, coupled with the experience of introducing (and re-introducing) the work to the company I had brought – was extraordinary. We stuck around for the post-concert reception and had a beer with Simone (now a Facebook friend!); but I remember it felt challenging to make small talk after the intensity of the music-making.

I always make a point of mentioning to my students that even with all of our modern technologies, most of the music heard in our culture is infinitely less complex than music composed hundreds of years ago. Which seems a sort of backwards evolution. And I’m not saying complexity automatically translates to depth, but I do think that music made from a limited technical background (read: pop) will remain just that – limited. I hope the human race doesn’t mutate out of its ability to sit and appreciate collaborations like this one between a 30-something Brooklynite and a German church organist who died over 250 years ago.

6. Curtis Eller @ Riding the Bull, Capital Fringe Festival (Washington DC, July, 2009)
I’ll go short with this one as it feels a tad self-indulgent to include an event that I produced. That said, presenting a guy who I consider to be one of the most original, most important songwriters working in America today to DC audiences was such a personal thrill and I think that audiences responded to him as I knew they would. Curtis wrote two original songs (“Three More Minutes With Elvis” and “Maybe There’s Something Wrong With My Money”) for our production of Gus Schulenburg’s brilliant, wacky play “”Riding the Bull” – and as I prepped myself for my Act I entrance it was tough to not get caught up in the feeling that I – through a phone call and a promise that “the real Elvis will be involved” – had indirectly caused the birthing of these moving songs. Please check his stuff out, folks.

7. Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor (Strathmore Hall, Bethesda, MD, March, 2009)
This one was an unaccompanied date for one of my favorite pieces of music, period. (Regardless of how ubiquitous it is after “Amadeus!”) After the first half of the concert (Stravinsky’s “Apollo,” I believe), I abandoned my nosebleed section seat and snuck up to the front row of the first balcony, where I had a perfect, central view of the enormous orchestra and choir. I felt like a big dork following along with score, but it served to remind how intricate Mozart’s counterpoint was, especially in that incredible, world-shaking fugue of the Kyrie. There’s a big difference between studying this stuff on the flat page and hearing it performed live. Personally, I need to do both. I played the first two movements for my theory students in class the next day (with photocopies of the score) and it shocked them as well. We do what we can for advocacy, right?

TRHM: Mahler’s 1st Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor (Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD, early 2009?)
I’m a Mahler fanatic, and the BSO smoked the heck out of this tremendous symphony. Also the piece the Venezuelan wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel chose to open his LA Philharmonic debut with a few months back, broadcast live on PBS. Tremendous. Vital. Earth shaking. If you don’t know Mahler, you don’t know music!

8. Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish (Strathmore Hall, Bethesda, MD, November 2009)
I’ve been a dedicated Dawn Upshaw fan since her stunningly gorgeous singing in the acclaimed early 1990s recording of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, which probably as much as any other piece of music convinced me to follow music as a career path. Seeing her live was a real treat, and her accompanist Gilbert Kalish is also one of my favorite pianists. (Check out his great Ives recording with legendary Eastman soprano Jan DeGaetani.) Upshaw’s program was fascinating – the Ives songs were a sentimental favorite – but if I had to select one moment that grabbed me most dramatically, I’d say it was the song she chose to open the second half of the concert (by which point we had moved up to the front of the hall – notice a trend here?): Lúa Descolorida, by the young Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. So sensually compelling was Upshaw’s interpretation, I thought I was going to swoon out of my seat.

9. The Spring Standards @ The Purple Fiddle (Thomas, WV, January 2009)
I love the experience of rolling the dice with a band and finding gold. Off on a weekend ski trip in the middle of nowhere, celebrating a friend’s birthday, we ventured out into the vast darkness of West Virginia one night to find a good time. The kind of area where you drive for 45 minutes to get to “the next town over.” Yet there it was, stuck in the middle of what had appeared a deserted village, this hip, happening coffee & beer nook which featured live music. We certainly weren’t expecting the sort of show put on by these really cool kids from Brooklyn. Commence dancing the night away!

The Spring Standards define musical industriousness – somehow they thought to break apart a drum set and split it up amongst themselves –so that whoever was playing keyboard also was clicking out a hi-hat at the same time. Never seen anything like it, but it really worked and certainly amped the level of visual interest. After the show we ended up hanging out with them at a great local brewpub, playing “cornhole” – a local game based on tossing beanbags across the room. Such fun. Over the next few months I indulged in *almost* overdosing on their terrific 6-song EP. I still love it tremendously – just such a vibrant mix of harmony vocals, interesting melodies and fun, fun, fun. “Much love from the Cornhole Aces!”

10. The Concert for Dan (Brockton, MA, December 17, 2005)
I won’t go very deep into this one, as I wouldn’t stop until tomorrow, but the experience of producing and playing in this tribute concert for my best friend Dan Shea, a brilliant jazz saxophonist/composer who died unexpectedly, on Oct. 10, 2000, will certainly be one of the musical and spiritual highlights of my life. So many different memories sift back from that evening – which would have been his 30th birthday – personal musical tributes offered up from high school and college friends. Dan’s teacher George Garzone, one of the premiere saxophonists in the world, volunteered of his time and played a searing solo rendition of John Coltrane ballads, and played Dan’s feature solo in Stan Kenton’s “Time For a Change” with our reassembled high school jazz band, led by our old band director. My friend Tim Kiah and I wrote and performed a song called “Relax Jay” (a favorite saying of Dan’s to me) in honor of the time the three of us got in trouble (gulp) with some guys wearing blue up in NH. (Some day I’ll get links of the video of all this stuff up on YouTube.) That afternoon, amidst the tumult of pre-concert planning, I wrote a piece I called “Hymn for Dan,” and sight-read it at the concert with my dear friend Maria playing flute. In its simplicity and emotional purity, I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. And the concert closed with some breathtakingly emotional singing (Danny Boy, no surprises). Just an incredible tribute and more evidence than I would ever need that music is a gift that can heal.

That’s it. I know there are concerts I’m forgetting: Hearing (and meeting backstage) the great Jimmy Scott at Iridium last month. Jonatha Brooke at the Ram’s Head in Annapolis. Jennifer Kimball, Jeffrey Foucault and Peter Mulvey, also at the Ram’s Head. Andy Bey at the Blue Note. Susana Baca at UMD. Aimee Mann at the 9:30 Club. Slavic Soul Party at Barbes in Brooklyn. St. Vincent at the Black Cat. Indigo Girls at Wolf Trap. Brad Mehldau Trio, also at Wolf Trap. Gretchen Parlato, Melody Gardot, both free (?!) at the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage. Karan Casey at Jammin Java. Christopher O’Riley playing Radiohead and Elliott Smith at the Kennedy Center. Bang on a Can playing Brian Eno at UMD. My good friend Lena Seikaly in DC. Crooked Still, with my Eastman friend Corey on bass, at the Birchmere. Art Lande and Paul McCandless at Dazzle in Denver, CO. Rachel Brook singing the wordless soprano solo I wrote for my staging of “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread.” Paul Bley, Lee Konitz and Steve Swallow at the Regattabar in Boston – the last time I ever hung out with Dan.

Ah well. They’re all in my memory bank too.

This was interesting to write. (It’s too long for a blog post, IknowIknowIknow.) Trying to conjure up impressions from past experiences in a compelling way – more difficult than it seems. That writing about music being like dancing about architecture thing and all. We go to hear music and still there’s this question to answer afterward: “What was it like?” As if we could accurately convey the totality of being there – we’re dealing in translations of experience, so we use metaphor as a guide.

I also notice that quite a few of my favorite musical experiences have had something to do with musicians I know personally, or who were at least approachable. One of the cool things about being involved with non-popular music is that our heroes tend to be ordinary people, not driven by ego like many flavor-of-the-month pop stars. I remember in high school feeling so cool that because I was a jazz fan I got to go backstage and meet some of my idols – Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Shirley Horn, Keith Jarrett, etc. – which in the pop world obviously wouldn’t be the case. Plus the music is better (!) so it’s like a double-win. (I’m only partially kidding.)

Is it a bit disturbing (to me) that there’s only one full-on entry here that’s actually “jazz?” Hmm. Anyway, I’ll call it a day for now. What a decade. Joyful listening to all in the 2010s!

Just made a rather lengthy comment in response to a post on concert etiquette, found on brilliant composer John Adams’s terrific new blog Hell Sounds.