City Noir by John Adams Performed by the St. Louis Symphony (Album of the Week)

city noirAlbum: City Noir

Composer: John Adams and performed by the St. Louis Symphony

Pieces: 2 symphonies. 1 hour and 4 minutes

Who’s Choice: Deliberate Obfuscation

My choice for this week’s album definitely arose from our previous week’s pick. Run the Jewels kind of battered my ears. I wanted to balance that with the calm of classical. As it turns  out, this is not a particularly calm orchestral voyage. Also, finding words to describe something without words is a little tougher than our usual fare. It calls for a more intense listen than I probably gave this album this week. Dan cites his lack of knowledge of classical music as a handicap to his truly being able to review the album.  I think, however, that he does a good job. I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with him regarding the music evoking Tom and Jerry chases, but it gave him context. Here I go with my thoughts.

Listening to the two symphonies that make up this album and piecing through the different elements that go into each movement, makes me as a listener, overwhelmed with the extraordinariness of it all. John Adams’ list of compositions is vast, and this latest album reflect something that he is known for – stretching the boundaries of classical.

For this album, it is the insertion of jazz elements – in particular saxophone jazz. City Noir, as the name suggests, is a moody overture that begs for a film to play in front of it. Like the cover of the album, the sound evokes darkness, fog, mystery. The first movement of this three part piece starts out fast paced as the sounds circle around the orchestra from strings to winds to percussion to brass. It sounds like a chase. The calm that follows is not so much a sigh of a relief, but more of a chance to catch your breath for what is sure to be the next harrowing turn of events. Throughout, listening for the peeks of the saxophone is a delight. Here and there it pokes in as if you dropped into a seedy bar with a player riffing in the corner. It’s there, and it’s gone. The blaring trumpets that close out the last movement end abruptly at their greatest intensity. It’s a fun ride through the city.

The second piece is the newer of the two, and it is Adams’ homage to the saxophone whose “integration into the world of classical music has been a slow and begrudged one.” While Adams state that this is not a work of jazz, he used pieces by the likes of Charlie Parker and Stan Getz as guides. Adams’ dad was an alto sax player and he grew up in a household filled with records by the jazz greats. Like City Noir, Saxophone Concerto sets a mood of mystery. Tim McAllister, the saxophonist who it seems the piece was written for, glides through the lines with an ease that is hard to imagine that one can accomplish while trying to breathe and move your fingers furiously up and down the body of the instrument. The video of the performance that I have included here, I adore! Seeing Tim standing, swaying, and bopping through the entire performance makes me just know that this piece is the time of his life. 

While I didn’t give the album as much time as I probably should have, I feel like I got to know a modern composer better and I have seen a saxophone performance that  made me really happy.

Next Up: Ryan Adams by Ryan Adams



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