When guitarist Bill Frisell first began a more decided focus on roots music, bluegrass and country & western music with the release of 1996's Nashville (Nonesuch), despite being largely very well-received, jazz purists rankled when the largely bluegrass/folk-informed album began to garner awards like Downbeat Magazine's Best Jazz Album of the Year. While Frisell's oftentimes Americana-tinged work has, in the ensuing years, become more fully accepted for the wonderful music that it is, fellow six-stringer John Scofield is unlikely to find himself the subject of such purist criticism with Country for Old Men.
Of all the composers of the twentieth century John Cage (1912–1992) is doubtless one of the most inventive and the most determined in the pursuit of his musical goals. The significance of the seven pieces brought together here is the striking panorama of the intelligence of the material presented, over a period of four years, from 1939 to 1943, by the composer whom the critic Fred Goldbeck described as “the greatest Giraudouxian of our age”.
"Silence. Sounds are only bubbles on its surface. They burst to disappear." (John Cage)
This recording deals with works composed between 1944 and 1958, including several of Cage's lovely and masterful prepared piano pieces, which will come as a major surprise to those familiar only with his chance compositions. Joshua Pierce is the principal pianist (assisted by Dorothy Jonas on the Three Dances, written for two pianos) and attacks the pieces with a nice balance of delicacy and aggression, although compared to the earlier Angel recording of the abovementioned Three Dances, one sometimes wishes for a bit more ferocity. But it's the works themselves that shine here with their auras of Southeast Asia, especially Bali. The rhythms are rich and complex and, unexpectedly for Cage, there are hummable melodies here and there, as in the gorgeous Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, which, along with the equally beguiling Mysterious Adventure, here receives its first recording. Although other composers were investigating gamelan music at around the same time, it's easy to hear the influence these pieces had, especially rhythmically, on contemporaries like Lou Harrison and Harry Partch. Perhaps even more surprising is the (unprepared) piano song Dream, where Cage summons the spirit of Erik Satie in a beautiful, languid line that wanders a luxurious path through its seven minutes. The Three Dances that close out the disc are amazing romps through the prepared piano thicket, redolent of Balinese street fairs, bustling city life, and the love of rhythmic sound. If not quite as overwhelming as the Michael Tilson Thomas/Ralph Grierson versions from 1973, they are still an absolute joy to hear. This volume is a perfect entry point for the listener who may have previously been scared away from Cage. Nothing to fear here, only sublime music.
Joshua Pierce brings to John Cage's music an almost uninhibited classicism, but that only bolsters the compositions. He opens A Room and emphasizes its shifts with the attention of a concert pianist, rather than someone who follows Cage's directions to play the piece very quietly. Pierce, in fact, takes each of these dozen works, all of them dating to the 1940s and '50s, and draws from them the resonant Cagean oddness—phrases of weird shapes and all. But he adds a ton, too. In a Landscape sounds almost wholeheartedly minimalist in its tone colors, and She Is Asleep sounds both drummerly (on the artfully flat prepared piano) and jazzy, with Jay Clayton dropping some scat vocals in ever so subtly. This is, after all, the period when Cage was discovering the closeness between percussion and motion, on the one hand, and percussion and the modified piano, on the other hand. So these pieces blurt out chunky phrases, build with shaded drama, and rumble delicately along. It's a difficult assessment making suggestions when it comes music so notoriously open to interpretation. But Pierce has played all the Cage piano and prepared-piano stuff, creating a Wergo series that any lover of the piano repertoire should own in full. Here, anyway, is an excellent introduction, perfect for the Cagean neophyte and still inventive enough to energize owners of Roaratorio or Frances Marie Uitti's Works for Cello.