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Graham Weekly Album Review #1774

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Gabriel Kahane: The Ambassador
by George Graham

(Sony Masterworks 05725 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/4/2014)

Not that long ago, there was a rather sharp divide between classical musicians and rock and pop artists. There were obvious reasons for that -- one school emphasized creating authentic versions of music precisely written out, and the other involves original music and a good deal of improvisation, not to mention the completely different instrumentation and styles of playing. But of course, there have been plenty of classical-rock mixtures that have come long since the 1960s when that kind of thing was helped along by the Beatles and the classical background of their producer George Martin. Still, the usual situation was to bring classical musicians into a rock project or vice versa, with few artists inhabiting both worlds equally. But recently, have been a number of musicians and composers who have classical backgrounds and often perform in the classical world, but who nevertheless do their own original music. And an interesting wrinkle in recent such projects is approaching them from the standpoint of a singer-songwriter, rather than some kind of orchestral rock band. Among the straddling artists we have featured in this series are Shara Worden and her musical project called My Brightest Diamond and Anna Dagmar.

One of the most creative of these artists with one foot in classical and the other as a kind of folkie is Gabriel Kahane, who has just released a new recording called The Ambassador.

Gabriel Kahane is the son of classical pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane. He was born in Venice, California in 1981 and spent time in various locations, with a lot of his childhood in New England and Upstate New York. He also lived in the San Francisco area. He attended the New England Conservatory of Music and then graduated from Brown University, where he wrote his first musical. He has become an orchestral composer of some reputation. In recent years, he has received a number of commissions for original works for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Kronos Quartet, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra among others. He become known for a work called Craigslistlieder in which he set the text of adds from the on-line classifieds website to music in the lieder classical vocal style. He has also worked as a pianist and accompanist for artists ranging from Rufus Wainwright and Sufjan Stevens to Chris Thile. He also writes for theater. There was the premiere of his musical called February House given in 2012.

His last album as a singer-songwriter, Where Are the Arms was released in 2011 and was a fascinating and beautifully executed hybrid of a sophisticated contemporary chamber music style of writing with a kind of plaintive singer-songwriter approach.

Now Kahane is out with a new work of similar scope, this time on a major label, Sony Masterworks. Since Kahane has something of a reputation in the orchestral world for writing suites of music based on a theme, this album follows a similar pattern. It's a series of musical reminiscences and considerations about Los Angeles, where, the voluminous liner notes explain, he has made fairly frequent trips from his home in Brooklyn, NY. There are ten songs, and each is associated with an address in Los Angeles, representing different sections of the diverse city. Some of them tell stories, and some are more impressionistic pieces. Instrumentally, there is a mix of the small mostly acoustic group he works with plus some sections with orchestral settings, which are often subtle but really add a lot to the songs.

Kahane works with the same musicians who were the core of Where Are the Arms in 2011, Casey Foubert, Matt Johnson and Rob Moose, and once again Aofie O'Donovan of the group Crooked Still makes a guest appearance on backing vocals. Also appearing in a cameo is Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond.

The album opens with a short piece called Black Garden which rather epitomizes the album, the interesting but often ambiguous lyrics with Kahane's harmonically sophisticated but appealingly melodic music. The strings make a subtle appearance. <<>>

A piece called Bradbury shows a little of Kahane's influence by Philip Glass before the momentum builds. <<>>

Rather more toward the rock is a composition called Slumlord Crocodile, whose musical setting fits well with the lyrics. <<>>

Kahane dedicated a song called Veda to the film actress Joan Crawford. It's another piece that tells an ambiguous story with a more contemplative musical mood. <<>>

Los Angeles will always be associated with the detective stories of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe, and Kahane dedicates the song Musso and Frank to the authors. It has the kind of brassy sound one associates with the genre. <<>>

The title of the album, The Ambassador is a reference to the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, home of the glamorous Cocoanut Grove nightclub, and where Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It was torn down in 2005. The title track Ambassador Hotel is a kind of reminiscence of the historic building, performed, perhaps rather surprisingly, in a solo folk acoustic guitar setting. <<>>

The album's major work is called Empire Liquor Mart about the shooting of a fifteen year old black boy by a female Korean shopkeeper thinking he was a shoplifter, an event which happened shortly after the Rodney King incident. The piece is in several musical parts, different phases, showing Kahane's skill as a composer with his theatrical and classical influence. <<>>

The CD ends with Union Station, an introspective-sounding piece reflecting on the train station as a kind of symbolic end to American western migration. <<>>

The Ambassador, the new CD from classical composer and singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane is another outstanding work from one of the most skillful artists whose careers straddle both worlds. Like some of his classical and theatrical work, this is a cycle of compositions based on a theme, in this case specific locations in Los Angeles, often using them as metaphors. Kahane is a fine composer with his music combining sophisticated and often unexpected harmonic sequences which create subtle mood shifts sometimes within lines of a song. His skills with orchestral arrangements are impressive, particularly for their subtlety. And he's an appealing vocalist whose delivery fits the melancholy or bittersweet nature of the songs.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The recording was made in several professional and a couple of home studios on both coasts, but the elements are integrated well. Casey Foubert, one of the band members did the mix. The mix captures well the more subtle sonic pastels of the Kahane's music. The dynamic range, how well the recording reproduced the ebb and flow of the music could always be better, but it was not too badly compressed.

Artists have been dabbling with mixing classical and rock for decades. Usually it's done for the effect, but for Gabriel Kahane on his excellent new album, it's all of one piece.

(c) Copyright 2014 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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