Andrew McKenna Lee: Gravity and Air
New Amsterdam Records

QQQ: Unpacking the Trailer...
New Amsterdam Records

Gravity and Air is a ravishing collection of classical guitar playing and (with one exception) original compositions from Andrew McKenna Lee. He opens the album with a brief but nevertheless dazzling rendition of J.S. Bach's Prelude for Lute, BWV 999 before embarking on five of his own “refractions” that take as their starting point certain structural and harmonic elements of Bach's prelude. The fifteen-minute chamber work, the dark out of the nighttime (2005), enhances the recording by adding the flute, viola, and harp sonorities of Janus members Amanda Baker, Nuiko Wadden, and Beth Meyers to Lee's guitar. Here, as elsewhere, the writing is bold and uncompromising but not unappealing or unmusical. There's definitely a nocturnal character to the piece, and Baker's flute can't help but introduce a rather Debussyesque quality while the work's expressionistic-romantic chamber style at times calls to mind Schoenberg's own Chamber Symphony. Lee's other composition, Scordatura Suite (2002), presents three pieces for solo guitar, “Arabescata,” “Dizzying Array,” and the title track, each played using a different tuning. Technically speaking, Lee resists relying heavily on open strings, opting instead for “grace notes, turns, trills, harmonics, arpeggios, and other ornaments.” On purely sonic grounds, his playing tends as much towards elegant restraint as it does aggressive exuberance (note, for example, how ferociously the fourth “refraction,” “Toccata,” explodes from the starting gate, and the violence with which Lee attacks the instrument during the title piece)—Gravity and Air is no exercise in polite wallpaper music, in other words. At no time is Lee's obviously virtuosic command of the instrument gratuitously showcased; instead, the focus shines equally on his stunning guitar playing and his ambitious large-scale compositions.

QQQ's Unpacking the Trailer is as strong, though markedly different in character from Gravity and Air. A quartet comprised of two married couples—Hardanger fiddle player Dan Trueman and classical guitarist Monica Mugan, and violist (and Janus member) Beth Meyers and percussionist (and So Percussion member) Jason Treuting—, QQQ builds its sound from the distinctive cry of the steel-stringed Hardanger fiddle in concert with the more familiar sound of finger-picked guitar playing and the dark, lustrous moan of the viola with all of it propelled by the supportive kick of Treuting's drumming. As high-spirited as its title suggests, “Tøykey Jøykey” opens the recording with a rambunctious blast of funky backwoods swing, suggesting immediately that the best place to hear QQQ is live. It's in the ballads, however, where the group really shines. Faint traces of “Makin' Whoopee” resonate within the semi-drunken sway of “Swimming under the Moonlight” but it's the beautiful central spotlight for Trueman's keening Hardanger fiddle that proves most affecting. Throughout the release, the ballads' slower tempi and lean arrangements give the music ample room to breathe, which enables the listener to more easily savour the interplay between the viola, guitar, and the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. Permeated by a wistful and melancholy tone, “Spring” serves as a particularly splendid example, as does the oft-tender “Sister Sparrow.” Sophisticated and accessible, the group's material ranges widely—klezmer, bluegrass, Appalachian folk music, prog rock, and post-minimalism all surface at one time or another—yet the album never loses its focus when the quartet brings such a strong identity and conviction to each piece. Though the compositions are clearly tightly-arranged, they're performed with an exuberance that makes them feel spontaneously created.

Gravity and Air and Unpacking the Trailer are both superb recordings from New Amsterdam Records (which just celebrated its first anniversary). Here's hoping its future releases can uphold the same standard.

March 2009