Undiscovered Landsby George Grella
Michael Vincent Waller
Michael Vincent Waller’s music is easy to admire: he writes with clarity, he has an involving interest in variation form, his harmonic palette is tonal but he’s not confined to functional harmony, he uses repetition as a means to build form and maintain direction, and he crafts attractive melodies—a fundamentally important skill that has become bizarrely undervalued in contemporary classical music. Waller’s pieces are very much of the present moment, but stand outside the current orthodoxies seeping out of conservatories and graduate schools. He is more interested in the historical tradition than most of his generation of composers, and he’s far less interested in white, bourgeois, audible beats and indie pop-inspired two and four bar phrases, which threaten to smother the world of contemporary classical composing in a soporific vapor.
What sets Waller’s music apart is his biography. He came to composing relatively late and has an unusual academic background: his bachelor’s degree from NYU is in finance, with a minor in music, and he spends his days as a database programmer. He’s a professional composer in the most important sense, working and supporting himself and striving to make music. His interest in composing developed in college, in a seminar with composer Elizabeth Hoffman, and then blossomed outside it. His school was LaMonte Young’s Dream House. He studied under Young for several years, then with Bunita Marcus. The fruits are heard on an EP released early this year, Five Easy Pieces, piano works played by Megumi Shibata and Jenny Q. Chai. Available digitally from iTunes, Amazon, and streaming services, the music is subtly affecting and shows his roots in Bartók and Debussy without ever casting a shadow over his own voice and vision. Waller says the title is “more Jack Nicholson than Stravinsky.”
“Stylistically, I’m still impressed with the Impressionists. It’s music of departure,” he told me. Like with theirs, the organization of his music comes through in the way that it always has an interesting direction, even as it flows with a sense of organic freedom that might be indebted to his raga studies with Young. “Intuition is something I learned from all my mentors.”
In March, violist Max Mandel and pianist Eric Huebner played two fine new Waller pieces at Roulette, on a concert program that included a terrific work by Hoffman—Musical Boxes—music by Yotam Haber and Annie Gosfield, and Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life #2. Waller organized the concert in his third career as an increasingly important impresario, programming concerts at Spectrum, finding musicians and ensembles, and writing new pieces for them. “I was going to so many concerts, and I was so into concerts, I didn’t just want to be a composer.”
Through the connections he made concert-going, he was asked to program the NewIdeas MusicSeries at Pianos, 2010 – 12. One of the last performances of that series was at Spectrum, where he met Glenn Cornett and became one of Cornett’s young, interesting musicians who, with their social and musical connections, create concert programs for the venue. Check Spectrum’s schedule regularly for a chance to hear one of the most interesting composers in New York, and see more about Waller and his work at michaelvincentwaller.com.
New York City has two of the greatest improvising pianists, Cecil Taylor and Tonino Miano. An Italian who lives in the Bronx, Miano has developed a style the comes out of both the Western classical and jazz traditions, and plays with fearsome technique, intelligence, and passion. toninomiano.com
Joe Blessett is impossible to describe. He’s a rare example of a true underground artist, making music that violates essentially every rule of genre and form. What he produces juxtaposes styles that are almost impossible to consider together, like smooth and free jazz, and yet is clear and mind-bogglingly delightful. joeblessett.com
The epitome of craft and creativity, Lyn is a professional, playing recording sessions and Broadway shows, and a restless musician who has moved from traditional Irish music through exceptional arrangements of Bach, brilliant original folk music, jazz, and now a hilarious, dazzling project with ranting actor Vincent D’Onofrio, Slim Bone Head Volt. danalynmusic.wordpress.com
Jeroen van Veen
This Dutch pianist deserves greater recognition for his monumental collections of minimalist piano music, especially the great music of composer Simeon ten Holt, as well as his own beautiful and deep set of piano pieces. jeroenvanveen.com
How do you make jazz that stands out from the crowd? Combine it with a cartoon story. As unlikely as that seems, Bennett has produced a series of terrific recordings based around an imaginary bear: the music is bright, conscious of rock and minimalism, both familiar and wonderfully strange. danielbennett.net
Singer, performer, and composer, Yoon holds down a gig singing in church choirs, has received a TED Fellowship, and this year released her debut recording, the mesmerizing and immersive Sunken Cathedral. You can see her perform the work at the Prototype Festival this coming January. borayoon.com
This guitarist has sadly been quiet lately; his debut recording, Things I Wonder, makes such exciting and scintillating work of post-Radiohead jazz that you’ll be as eager to hear new music from him as I am. chris-parrello.squarespace.com
A lot of bands talk about improvisation and punk inspiration; Iron Dog actually delivers, with exceptionally rigorous playing and a viscerally in-your-face attitude. irondogmusic.com
Best known as the leader of the Screaming Headless Torsos, the Fuze is putting brains and funk back into fusion with his Planet MicroJam project—microtonal playing to hip grooves. planetmicrojam.com
One of the most interesting pianists on the contemporary jazz scene, Piket has all the traditional virtues—she swings, she keeps the material in sight—and adds real understanding of contemporary harmonies, non-jazz improvisation, and a confident sense of freedom. Get her excellent solo CD. robertajazz.com
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.