ALBUM REVIEW: The Hands Free

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Over the course of the past decade, the four composer-performers who make up the Hands Free have performed together in a variety of contexts. They found that what they loved doing the most was holding informal late-night jam sessions—which is what led to the quartet’s inception.

James Moore, who plays guitar and banjo for the group, became interested in a 1937 book that combines the poetry of  Paul Eluard with Man Ray’s line drawings. It’s called Les Mains Libres (Hands Free), a phrase Eluard and Ray used to describe allowing the imagination to play freely. Inspired to make music based on this concept, Moore thought of his late-night jams and invited Pulitzer Prize-winning Caroline Shaw (violin), Nathan Koci (accordion), and Eleonore Oppenheim (bass) to join him for imaginative musical play, creating The Hands Free and their debut self-titled album, out now on New Amsterdam Records.

The ensemble likes to perform unamplified, sit in a circle, and incorporate improvisation in almost every piece so performance feels like play and the sound is especially organic. For The Hands Free, they’ve also worked to integrate a mix of genres from folk music to jazz while drawing from the contemporary classical scene as well.

By making use of the cultural associations of genres and instrument colors, The Hands Free transports you to different parts of the world. Drawing themes from folk songs, the lively violin melody in “Kellam’s Reel/Rusty Gully” takes you to the Scottish countryside for a jovial dance. The gentle, romantic melody in “Lirr Bleu” conjures up images of Paris. With its bittersweet quality and the bass’s soft, melancholy countermelody, the piece seems to depict a broken heart in the City of Love.

In other pieces, The Hands Free challenges your perception of instruments and genres by combining them in new ways. “Lost Halo” begins with a banjo pattern that evokes the stereotypical twang of rural folk music—but when the violin enters with legato melodic lines, the banjo becomes more versatile than we often imagine it to be, intermixing tender consonant chords with dark, suspenseful dissonance for a surprisingly modern sound.

“Sade” almost sounds as though it could be from a horror movie soundtrack, with unpredictable percussion and blares of sound leading the piece into a creepy folk melody variation. Eerie tone clusters form as accordion slides clash against the rest of the ensemble. Alternately, in “It’s She” the violin transitions from another Scottish jig into a rich, lyrical melody. Beneath the violin quick, quiet bursts of tone and soft melodic humming add depth to the texture, creating something hopeful and grandiose.

With its complexity and variety, The Hands Free takes you on a journey around the world while maintaining the warmth and spontaneity of an impromptu jam session. With their beautifully eclectic mix of sounds that depict an immense variety of places and emotions, the quartet invites you to join in their play and let your imagination run free.

ALBUM REVIEW: Turtle Island Quartet’s Confetti Man

by Maggie Molloy

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According to Native American folklore, Sky Woman fell down to the Earth long ago, back when it was entirely covered by water. Realizing that she could not survive in the water, the surrounding sea creatures dug up dirt from the bottom of the ocean in order to create land for her. They placed this dirt on the shell of a giant turtle—and eventually this turtle grew into Turtle Island, the land known today as North America.

This tale is a powerful symbol not only for creation, spirituality, and environmental awareness, but also for coexistence and community. It is a story which celebrates and synthesizes both old and new cultural traditions—a broader theme which the Turtle Island Quartet strives to explore through their music.

The Turtle Island Quartet is a Grammy Award-winning ensemble whose innovative and eclectic sound infuses a classical string quartet aesthetic with contemporary musical influences such as jazz, folk, funk, be-bop, bluegrass, Latin American groove, and Indian classical.

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the quartet is comprised of violinists David Balakrishnan and Mateusz Smoczynski, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit, and cellist Mark Summer. Since the group’s inception in 1985, they have cultivated a vast and wide-ranging repertoire consisting primarily of original compositions and arrangements by quartet members.

And after 30 years as an ensemble, the group certainly has cause for celebration: they recently released their 15th studio album, “Confetti Man.” The 10-track disc is a collection of original compositions, arrangements, and commissioned works.

The two-movement title track, written by Balakrishnan, integrates elements of classical with jazz, bluegrass, folk, and even a touch of Indian musical influences. The dynamic mixture of musical styles from across history (and across the world!) is meant to reflect the computer age, where everything is fast-paced and at our fingertips. Inspired by his wife’s painting depicted on the album cover, the piece explores a wide range of vibrant melodic material, as if traveling through a musical museum of different cultures and time periods, often blurring the line between musical traditions past and present, near and far.

The title track is followed up with “Windspan,” written for the quartet by the famous saxophonist Bob Mintzer of the Yellowjackets. As one might expect, the piece harnesses a bold, big band sound featuring some seriously saxophone-like string solos brimming with slides, glides, and bona fide jazz grooves.

Another jazzy showpiece is “La Jicotea,” which was written for the quartet by renowned clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera—a musician who is celebrated as much for his artistry in Latin jazz as for his achievements in the classical music realm. The piece combines both of these strengths, mixing Latin American grooves in unusual meters with a carefully-crafted polyphonic soundscape featuring imaginative musical textures and timbres.

The sweetest and most charming song on the album, though, is certainly Turtle Island’s rendition of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David classic “Send Me No Flowers,” featuring the inimitable Nellie McKay on vocals and ukulele. McKay’s sugary sweet, ’60s-tinged vocals float effortlessly above a darling and delicate string accompaniment.

Another piece with plenty of personality is Balakrishnan’s “Alex in A Major,” which was inspired by his next-door neighbor’s son. The charming and youthful main theme illustrates the boy’s playful and sassy nature, and the piece features both Balakrishnan and Smoczynski as dueling bluegrass fiddlers.

In all, Turtle Island’s “Confetti Man” is a charming and charismatic fusion of imaginatively diverse musical styles, a beautiful reminder that musical traditions old and new can still exist in perfect harmony.

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: The 442s (Self-Titled)

by Maggie Molloy

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The 442s are not your average string quartet. Though the group gets its name from the standard orchestral tuning of 442 Hz, they certainly do not confine themselves to the classical music tradition.

The band was formed in 2012 by two classically-trained musicians from the St. Louis Symphony and two talented jazz musicians from the Erin Bode Group. Together, the musicians have cultivated an acoustic instrumental quartet which offers its listeners an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, rock, world, and folk music genres.

The quartet is composed of violinist Shawn Weil, cellist Bjorn Ranheim, double bassist Sydney Rodway, and composer, keyboardist, and guitarist Adam Maness. This past May, the group released their self-titled debut album.

Aside from the extraordinary musicianship of each member, the most striking element of The 442s debut album is its musical diversity. The group transitions flawlessly from rhythmic, percussive soundscapes to gentle, flowing melodies to lively jazz piano solos and everything in between.  The group also experiments with improvisation, whistle solos, group vocals, and much more.

The composer behind The 442s unique sound is their pianist and guitarist Adam Maness, who can also be heard playing accordion, melodica, and glockenspiel on various tracks. Though Maness is responsible for writing most of the music, all of the musicians in the group collaborate and improvise to create a cohesive group sound.

“I’ve tried to write music without any restraints of specific genres or forms. Whether that involves the symphonic members of the group singing and improvising on the spot, or crafting through-composed passages for the jazz members of the group, I try to compose this music not simply for the notes on the page, but for the particular strengths of each member of the ensemble,” Maness said.

The diversity of sounds cultivated throughout the album allows the listener to travel through a variety of musical landscapes. In fact, the album even comes with a fold-out map and compass created by James Walker of the St. Louis design studio Husbandmen.

“The map is the imaginary world of our album,” Maness said. “Each location is a song, and each has a corresponding image.”

The album’s opening track, “Shibuya,” takes the listener through the hustle and bustle of a Tokyo neighborhood. The track begins with a rhythm-driven texture which later gives way to a flowing violin melody. Each string player weaves in and out of the musical forefront like people weaving across the busy Shibuya city streets.

The album then travels through a variety of musical ideas. “The Caves and the Cold,” for instance, experiments with a percussive sound and group vocals, giving it a folk feel.

“Our love of folk and pop certainly comes out more in the vocal songs,” Maness noted.

“Heston’s” harnesses a soft, gentle sound with rich, flowing melodies, and “The One” pairs a sparser musical texture with beautiful vocals by jazz singer Erin Bode.

“Irish is Reel” opens with a lively Irish folk melody on piano, which is then taken over by the strings and transformed throughout the tune. “Chime” showcases Rodway’s jazz bass chops, while “Hondo’s” features a groovy jazz piano solo by Maness.

“We’re a band made of two classical musicians and two jazz musicians, and we’ve tried to write songs that feature the skills of both of those disciplines,” Maness said.

“Multitude,” the album’s final track, begins with a rhythm-driven, percussive texture which is later layered with soaring violin and cello melodies. The piece transitions back and forth between rhythmic textures and more nebulous, flowing resonances before ending together in perfect unison.

It is a true testament to the musicianship of The 442s that they are able to travel through so many different genres and musical ideas in just under one hour. Check out their new album and join them on their musical journey!

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer”

by Jill Kimball

Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer

Almost everyone has heard some version of a song about the man called John Henry. Legend has it that John Henry was a steel driver–someone who drilled holes into rock so that explosives could blast entire mountainsides and make way for tunnels and railroads. One day, he tried to keep up with a machine and succeeded, only to die of stress-induced heart failure on the spot.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

The character is fictional, but he represented the hordes of exploited laborers who built miles of American railroad in the late 19th century in harsh conditions for next to no pay. To this day, he is a symbol of unfair labor practices, of human strength, and of the skilled worker’s ongoing struggle to find work in an age of machines.

The folk song “John Henry” is well-known across so many genres. Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Johnny Cash to Aaron Copland to They Might Be Giants has recorded, arranged or referenced it. Rather than being deterred by its ubiquity, though, the composer Julia Wolfe was inspired by it. Believe it or not, she waded through every version of “John Henry” she could find, noted all the lyric differences–since it’s an old folk tale, there are many–and wrote her own tribute in an album called Steel Hammer.

 

Musically, there’s a lot going on in this album. Norway’s vocal Trio Mediaeval provides strange, haunting and ethereal vocals throughout, accompanied by vastly different groups of instruments on each track. But the concept is simple: it’s an amalgamation of every John Henry story ever told, the details of which are often contradictory.

The album begins with mysterious, minimalistic vocals that reminded me a lot of fellow Bang on A Can composer David Lang. Then, a few effects are layered over the voices as they mimic the sound of a train whistle amid what sounds like a steel hammer driving into rock and the constant chug-a-chug of a steam engine.

According to legend, John Henry worked on a railroad in West Virginia. Or perhaps it was Kentucky. Or was it Columbus, Ohio? All of John Henry’s supposed locations are listed off in the folky, meandering second track, “The States,” which is pleasantly dissonant in all the right places. I especially like the introduction of driving percussion later in the track.

Two other tracks, “Characteristics” and “Polly Ann – The Race,” poke fun at the inconsistencies between John Henry stories. Some say he was tall; others say he was small. While some versions call his lover Polly Ann, others call her Mary Ann.

In “Destiny,” we learn that John Henry sealed his fate when he discovered his strength. “This hammer’s gonna be the death of me,” the vocal trio repeats as a piano and a cello play frenetic dissonant patterns and grow ever louder. The whole track ends loudly and abruptly, creating a frightening cliffhanger. We’re on the edge of our seats even though we all know the story’s tragic end.

“Mountain” paints a musical picture of the setting around which John Henry worked. At first it’s contemplative and tonal, but it grows increasingly dissonant as the steel driver’s death sinks in.

The two last movements, “Winner” and “Lord, Lord”, are like the modern answer to a Requiem mass, a seven-minute opportunity to come to grips with John Henry’s death, to grieve, and finally to hope that he is at peace now.

There’s a reason why this album was the runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a triumph: beautiful but challenging, modern but accessible, at once relaxed and disquieting. I highly recommend you check it out! It’s available now on Cantaloupe Music‘s website.