Four Musicians to Know

Since I stopped writing for About.com I haven’t been listening to as many new releases, so instead of trying to pick ten for a year-end list, I thought I’d just pick out a few things that I discovered this year, whether they were new or not, and tell all of you dear readers what I like about them. So, get ready for a completely mixed bag. I’ve got rock, roots, jazz, classical and beyond in here, and I that’s exactly how I like it. Here we go, in no particular order.

1. Oliver Swain, “In a Big Machine”

Oliver Swain is a singer/songwriter based in Victoria, BC, and I can’t recommend this album highly enough to anyone who likes folk or string band music. He mixes up traditional songs, like John Henry, Walk Around My Bedside, and others, with his originals, as well as a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” Swain has a really clear and bright voice, and he also plays a really interesting arco bass and clawhammer banjo, and his duets with fiddler Jeremy Penner are dynamic, acrobatic and melodic, all at the same time. My favorite thing about the record is that he is able to capture the darker side of the songs he chooses, like the sadness of “Walk Around My Bedside,” and the gravity of the story behind “John Henry,” but turns each one into a joyful celebration of the human condition. Buy the album here.

2. Jesse Stacken, “Bagatelles for Trio”

Jesse Stacken was one of the first musicians I met when I moved to New York in 2010. We were sharing a double bill at Douglass Street Music Collective he played this set of music with the same players as on the record, Eivind Opsvik on bass and Jeff Davis on drums. This trio has worked together for a few years, and their shared experience really shows in their playing. A bagatelle is a short piece, usually for piano, that is usually “of a light, mellow character”. (I’m quoting Wikipedia on this one. Look out Harvard!) Jesse’s bagatelles are short, and yes, he plays them on the piano, but they are not light. I know he chose the name for a reason, but I can’t remember what he said, so I’ll say why I think he chose it. (Look out Harvard!) Bagatelle is from the French, and means “a trifle” and in Jesse’s hands this means “to play,” in the child-like sense of the word.

These compositions are interested only in themselves, by which I mean that there is no deeper significance than the pure act of discovery of the material and the possibilities contained in it. In these pieces he intentionally sets himself up in a place that exists only in the imagination: a wide, open country with no history and no tradition. The payoff of this kind of freedom is that Jesse can take his material in any direction that seems interesting, and the result is a thoroughly satisfying album. Buy the album here.

3. Sama Dams, “Live From the Banana Stand”

I did a short tour with Sam’s great band in Oregon, just two shows in Portland and Eugene. We met as fellow members of the board of the Willamette Jazz Society, the non-profit that runs the Jazz Station. At that time I knew Sam as a good jazz piano player, and it wasn’t until later, when I had moved to New York, that Sam recorded his first EP, Draw This Bitter Blood, that I found out he was also a great singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Most of the songs on Bitter Blood, are re-recorded on his recent live release “Live From the Banana Stand,” but this time realized with a live band.

Most of these songs bring together spiritual themes, like “Patmos,“ that compares the journey of St. John the Baptist to the island of Patmos where he received a vision of the apocalypse that became the Book of Revelation. When I asked Sam about how these songs relate to his own spiritual feelings, he said that he tends to press towards the “gray areas bordering the physical and metaphysical.” Patmos isn’t really just about St. John, but about a speaker seeing himself on the precipice of what he feels will be a revelatory journey. Sam said the song was about his “homesickness and the guilt of leaving my family behind” as he moved to Portland.

What I like about these songs is the more typical rock song subjects, love, loneliness, are mixed in with spiritual feelings, so much so that it is hard to find see where one ends and the other begins. Listening to these songs, with their dramatic melodies and tense harmonies, the sorrow becomes more profound, and the joy becomes more ecstatic. Buy the album here.

4. Brian McWhorter, Molly Barth and Beta Collide, “Thorn”

I’ve written about Brian before (in this interview) and mentioned his influence on my life and work many times. I’d like to do it again now for a few reasons. The first is that the group’s output consists almost equally of video productions as it does of the more traditional concert appearances, and their latest video “Thorn” comes highly recommended. Brian’s group Beta Collide that he co-leads with flutist Molly Barth, deserves much greater recognition for re-imagining the structure and vision of a contemporary classical music group. The vision behind Beta Collide comes from the idea of a “beta test” which is where software that has been tested by the designer internally in “alpha” testing, and is then released to outside testers. This kind of laboratory approach brings some much-needed innovation to the field as the older models become less viable.

In “Thorn” Molly Barth appears at Oregon’s Sumter Dredge, a huge machine that was designed to dredge rock out of the water and drop the rock into processing machinery. Molly plays David Lang’s piece for solo flute wearing a Rosy the Riveter-type costume, down to the polka dotted handkerchief on her head. The piece works with rhythmic repetition and groove, a lot like machinery, and the setting really brings this part of the piece to life. But the video doesn’t stop there. With the piece asking the player to play almost without stopping, and the restless harmonies that the constantly shifting pitches suggest, some darker implications are dredged up (sorry), like the environmental degradation caused by gold mining in many communities, and the mind-numbing difficulty of working with these machines. With this in mind, the whimsical Rosie the Riveter character’s music becomes a kind of barrier against the more damaging aspects of the machinery, as if her submitting herself to the experience saves all of us from it. Perhaps I’m reading into this a bit too much, but all of these things came to mind as I watched it. It’s a great video, please go watch it here.

Also, Brian recently spearheaded a big project called Orchestra Next where he helped raise a bunch of money to create a “training orchestra” composed mostly of students with some professional principal players. The whole project was created because the Eugene Ballet had announced it would not hire its orchestra to perform the Nutcracker this year, performing the famous work instead with recorded music. Brian’s answer to this problem is innovative and deserving of high praise and I’m glad to see that it was ultimately successful. (The Eugene Ballet’s Nutcracker production opened Dec. 20th with Orchestra Next providing the music.) “What happens next?” will be a big question for this project, and I’ll be very interested to see what happens. In mean time, go to Orchestra Next’s web page and learn more.

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